Gold beyond medals for China’s top athletes

Athletics is proving a sure thing to play for fashion brands in China. Sports stars, with their wholesome public images, have become the new darlings of the industry even as China cracks down on celebrity excesses.

As the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics come to an end, the partnerships between brands and medalists have become closer than ever. Athletes appear more in television commercials and in the front rows of fashion shows.

Superstar freestyle skier Gu Ailing, or Eileen Gu, who won two gold medals and a silver medal for Team China at the Olympics, is undoubtedly the hottest fashion icon on the scene.

The 18-year-old Chinese-American’s endorsements and endorsements cover domestic and international brands, including sportswear, cosmetics, food and beverage, home furnishings, social media apps and even financial products.

Gu reportedly earned $42 million in endorsements last year before he even set foot on the slopes.

She is the promotional face of Tiffany, luxury watchmaker IWC, Louis Vuitton and Victoria’s Secret. In China, she has signed more than 20 sponsorship deals with companies such as China Mobile, China Bank and dairy farmer Mengniu. She is also the spokesperson for Luckin Coffee, the Starbucks of China.

Gu on the cover of the April issue of Marie Claire.

“With the increasingly close connection between sports and business, athletes are becoming high-quality idols sought after by young people,” said Jiang Minghua, a professor at Peking University’s Guanghua School of Management. “People naturally have great faith in athletes because they are reliable with clean track records, professionals with years of hard practice, attractive and nationalistic personalities. And these qualities will be projected onto the brands they endorse. “

Gu isn’t the only one enjoying her fame.

Sprinter Su Bingtian, who set a new Asian record of 9.83 seconds in the men’s 100-meter semi-final at the Tokyo Olympics, has become an ambassador for consumer electronics company Xiaomi, the GAC Motor’s Septwolves and Empow menswear brand.

Fencer Sun Yiwen, gold medalist in women’s individual epee at the Tokyo Games, appears in the Dior Vibe campaign. Professional surfer Guo Shujuan, or Monica Guo, has appeared in advertisements for Chanel, Calvin Klein, Tommy Hilfiger and Lancȏme, and is also a poster artist for fashion magazines Vogue, Elle, Bazaar and Marie Claire.

Unlike the lives of most celebrities and pop stars, athletes lead disciplined lives, which reduces the risk of unseen scandals popping up to tarnish a brand name.

Last week, Chinese actor Deng Lun was fined 106 million yuan ($16.7 million) for tax evasion, according to the Shanghai State Tax Administration.

He is the latest high-profile target in China’s crackdown on showbiz ignominy, following in the footsteps of a long list of Chinese stars like Zheng Shuang, Kris Wu and former live streamer Viya, who fell into disgrace for allegations of personal and financial misconduct last year. The country’s “zero tolerance” for stars who break the law wipes them out of the public eye overnight.

Deng lost all of his commercial endorsements, which included contracts with Roger Vivier, L’Oréal and Gucci. His official accounts on various social networks have been deleted.

Gold beyond medals for China's top athletes

Fencer Sun Yiwen appears in the Dior Vibe campaign.

“Brands and their ambassadors are in the same boat,” Professor Jiang said. “Negative news affects the commercial value of the merchandise the ambassador is promoting, dragging a brand name into the mud. That’s why sports stars with more polished public images might be a safer choice.”

Sure but not always.

When Yang Qian won gold in the women’s 10-meter air rifle event at the Tokyo Olympics, 10 of the 11 posts she posted in a month on her social media were commercial advertisements.

Critics followed.

“Can’t you concentrate on what you’re supposed to do?” said a Weibo user under one of the posts.

“Among all the Chinese champions, you are the most arrogant,” observed another netizen.

Volleyball star Zhang Changning suffered a similar backlash after signing a marquee contract after the defending champions Chinese women’s volleyball team withdrew from the Tokyo Olympics.

“Is earning money so important to you? “a user posted on his Weibo account.

Such online criticism, however, prompted a flood of positive retaliation.

“Who are the sour grapes?” writes a commentator.

“Stop putting moral pressure on them! writes another.

It is a sign that times are changing. For decades, Chinese athletes were above commercial endorsements. They were stereotyped as highly disciplined individuals, subordinate to national glory, not as goldmines.

This was largely due to the tightly controlled Chinese state sports system. However, the advent of digital technology and social media has opened up new opportunities for the younger generation of top Chinese athletes.

They are active on social media platforms, happy to share their daily workout life on the internet with selfies and short videos. They have a more open mindset and don’t seem intimidated by the risk of criticism.

Gold beyond medals for China's top athletes

Shot putter Gong Lijiao appeared in a bespoke red ensemble in Prada’s Spring 2022 fashion campaign.

“Please be careful of fat girls. They are also nice girls,” shot putter Gong Lijiao, who weighs around 108 kilograms, said after winning a gold medal in Tokyo.

She appeared in a bespoke red ensemble in Milan-based Prada’s Spring 2022 fashion campaign alongside famed Olympic marathon runner Li Zhixuan, women’s national water polo team member Xiong Dunhan and bronze medalist basketball player Yang Shuyu.

“Every gram of my fat is useful,” Gong said with a big smile during an interview.

“That’s what you call personal charisma,” Professor Jiang said. “Every athlete has a story to tell: how they train, how they compete, how they deal with failure and how they heal from injury. These are the core values ​​of a brand – qualities that pop stars do not have.”

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