The King Is Out. Long Live the King.

Heartbroken Chinese, Including Many Sponsors, Watch Liu Xiang Exit Olympics

By Published on .

Greg Paull
Greg Paull
In a devastating turn of events for China, one of the mainland's biggest sports celebrities pulled out of the Olympic Games today. Liu Xiang was unable to compete in a qualifying heat for the men's 110-meter hurdles because of an injury to his right foot. Liu may not be a household name in the U.S. or Europe, but inside China, he is a star. He won the 110-meter hurdle race in Athens in 2004. For the past four years, the entire country has counted on him pulling off the same feat this week in Beijing.

His non-start completely consumed all oxygen today at the Olympic Games. Our analysis of Chinese bulletin boards shows it alone has an 80% "share of voice" of all posted comments. Phone calls to sponsors, sports agents and others are all running hot.

His injury is the worst-case scenario for Liu and his fans. It even tops the fear that his arch rival, Cuban hurdling champion Dayron Robles, would run past him Thursday night during the final round of competition in the men's 110-meter hurdles event. (Speaking of Thursday night, scalpers who sold $725 tickets to the Bird's Nest at Beithcheng, a black market hot spot in Beijing, must be happier right now than the people who purchased them!)

By our estimates, around $500 million in measured media has been spent on Liu Xiang-related marketing in China during the past two years. When he's not hawking Coca-Cola, he can be found selling Visa credit cards, Cadillacs, Amway health products, Nike apparel, Yili milk, EMS couriers or Lenovo computers and other products.
Liu Xiang wincing in pain
Liu Xiang wincing in pain Credit: Iconimages
We estimate he has been exposed through at least twice as much airtime as basketball star Yao Ming and perhaps five times or more against the rest of China's stars. In our research, while he trails Yao Ming in popularity, he leads in three of the top four brand associations in China (Coke, Yili and Amway), suggesting that sponsor messages are cutting through.

Most sponsors have already milked their value from Liu Xiang, though, and he is not going away. He will become fit again and he will win again. When Yao Ming was struck by injury, our research showed he became more popular.

Also, most sponsors, like Coke, Yili and Visa, were smart to employ a multicelebrity strategy and not just rely on him. This is the challenge of using a human being. He's not a machine or something that can't be broken, and sponsors just have to manage this reality.

Liu Xiang owns a unique place in the China psyche. He is the true hero who led a sport traditionally dominated by foreigners. He has proven Chinese can run and jump, and therefore is more valuable to China than American swimmer Michael Phelps is to America. He is far more precious than a great Chinese NBA star or table tennis champion.

Lost in all this gold rush is the personal impact on Liu Xiang. Forbes magazine estimated he made $17.5 million in 2007, and no doubt he will make at least that much this year. But he has the personal anguish to deal with of letting down a nation. If he can overcome this and perform will in the next world championships, it might be the comeback story of a generation.

China will certainly be eager to give him a second chance.

Liu Xiang's many sponsors
Liu Xiang's many sponsors Credit: R3

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