Partners in perfection
Tian Liang and Guo Jingjing are not only setting new standards in the diving pool - they are creating a model of financial success for future generations of mainland stars
Tian Liang shared a joke with fellow gold medal hopeful Guo Jingjing before the pair were hustled back to the springboard for another attempt at perfection.Over and over, China's top male and female divers sliced through the water; their taut bodies twisting, turning and som-ersaulting as they completed spellbinding routines from the springboard and the platform. The sound of the springboard from which Tian launches himself booms in the cavernous Beijing Diving Centre.
All those years of dedication to perfection will be worth it for Tian, the Sydney platform champion, and his apparent sweetheart, Guo, the two-time Sydney Olympic silver medallist, if they strike gold in the Athens pool.
China's most famous sporting pair - although they have never admitted to being a couple - will almost certainly strike more gold beyond the pool through endorsement contracts with foreign multi-national companies even more lucrative than the ones they currently hold down - deals unthinkable for people in their position in China only seven or eight years ago.
Tian, whose six-pack abs and youthful good looks, and Guo, with her doll-like delicate features, are known as the Romeo and Juliet of Chinese sports after the pair performed a scene from Shakespeare's play for a television glucose-drink commercial.
Guo, a favourite for the three-metre springboard event in Athens, has also appeared in a McDonald's commercial and is a brand ambassador for the world's biggest food chain. She has clinched another deal with beer makers Budweiser and McRib Burgers, though she would hardly think that endorsing such products would corrupt her sports star image.
The 22-year-old was reputedly paid close to 1 million yuan for a few days' work for the McDonald's commercial - a fortune in a nation where the average worker earns about 1,000 yuan a month. Tian has also done pretty well for himself, winning endorsement contracts with Amway and Bausch & Lomb, among others.
Tian drives a Mitsubishi Pajero SUV, owns an apartment in Beijing and has a closet full of Versace and Armani clothes. Guo bought a luxury apartment in Beijing with the money she earned from the McDonald's ad and zips around in a Mini Cooper.
More financial rewards are promised if the pair succeed in Athens - a far cry from the days when gymnastics legend Li Ning received almost no financial gain when China successfully returned to the Olympic fold in 1984.
Despite their tangible wealth, Tian and Guo are forced to live in dormitories as part of their round-the-clock regimen; their fortune ostensibly concealed from the outside world, even though they are considered China's most affluent sporting couple.
Tian and Guo's marketing success stems from China's desire for a new type of hero to replace the socialist icons of a bygone era. The diving pair are among the first to have thrown themselves into the capitalist world of sports marketing and multi-million yuan endorsements. Years before, China's sports system was modelled on the old Stalinist athletic machine designed to propagate the Communist regime and not designed to celebrate the individual - until now. 'Things have changed in this country. This is a new open-door policy that China had introduced years ago,' explained Chinese Olympic Committee (COC) vice-president Yang Shu'an.
'Everything the athletes do must be approved by the national sports federations. The policies are according to the rules and regulations of our federations,' he said.
Yang, who is also vice-president of the Beijing Organising Committee of the Olympic Games for 2008, said sports sponsorship for top Chinese athletes had been controlled for 10 years.
But what Yang probably didn't appreciate is that China's top athletes like Tian and Guo have become the true beneficiaries of economic reforms first introduced by paramount leader Deng Xiaopeng in the early 1980s.
'I can tell you that we have made some good progress in this respect,' said Yang. 'Yes, some of our top athletes have made TV advertisements and they have become ambassadors for the sports with other activities, but the management system in China is different from other Olympic committees.' Not much different though, thanks to those economic reforms that have made Tian and Guo - and NBA superstar Yao Ming among others - millionaires.
Yang revealed how sports contracts and endorsements were split. The athlete gets the biggest portion of the money earned - 50 per cent to be exact - while the national sports federation receives 30 per cent. About 10 per cent goes to the provisional team from which the athlete originated from (Shanghai in the case of Yao Ming). The rest - 10 per cent - is usually a tax paid to the government.
Tian and Guo have come a long way since they were thrust into diving at an early age. Tian started when he was seven. Years after he was hand-picked to join the national squad, he took fourth place at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996. He progressed to become the best male diver in the world at the Sydney Games, winning gold with one of his efforts achieving the highest single-dive ratings in Olympic history.
Guo joined the national team when she was 11 after being plucked from normal life to train in sports schools, where she would labour for up to nine hours a day in the pool. Her efforts have paid off, winning two silver medals in Sydney and retaining her world champion title in the three-metre platform in Barcelona last year.
Despite Guo and Tian's financial gains, though no longer a closely guarded secret, the pair are still under the control of the State. A big slice of their income is still absorbed by their national diving federation. And unlike many Western countries, they cannot sack their coaches and can only enjoy one day off a week. There is also a 10pm curfew at the dormitories they live in. Late-night activities are strictly forbidden, although the pair admit to sometimes surfing the internet.
'Sport is an industry now. It's an example of how economic reforms have changed in China,' said Guo recently when asked to explain the wealth she has amassed in the past four years.
Critics have argued that Tian and Guo's marketing magnetism has left them exposed in Athens. In a Grand Prix meeting earlier this year in the United State, Guo and Tian's form appeared to have dipped. She finished sixth in that competition after slipping and belly-flopping, but she said her form at that time had nothing to do with time spent on shooting her commercials.
'There are many competitions through the year, but it is very difficult to maintain your form. We are targeting the Athens Games and we are not worried about other international competitions.
'We will definitely be well prepared for Athens, which is the only competition that counts,' said Guo, who is being compared to her Chinese predecessor, diving great Fu Mingxia.
Tian also said it wasn't a 'big deal' that they had spent a few days shooting a commercial. 'It didn't affect my training at all. That competition is not important, The Olympics are important and I am gearing towards that.
'I considered the [commercial] shoot as a way to relax from my hectic schedule. I will be ready for Athens,' said Tian.
Tian also insists that it's all systems go for him. 'I am very confident I will do well in Athens. I am ready and I can't wait to compete in the Olympics again. I have maintained my form,' he said.
'However, it will be harder for me because I will be defending my title in Athens.
'When I won in Sydney, I didn't have much pressure because I wasn't very well known. But I am going to Athens as the defending champion and everybody will be out to beat me.'
While Tian and Guo are obvious selections, Li Na, the Sydney Olympics gold medallist in the women's 10m synchronised platform did not make the team, although Li Ting was selected along with Lao Lishi, the latter pair being the reigning world synchronised champions.