Diving star's commercial splash rocks ship of state

PUBLISHED : Monday, 14 February, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 14 February, 2005, 12:00am

While United States film and music producers want China to be punished for violating their copyright, one of its top divers is fighting for his own, part of a fierce debate over who owns the commercial right of the country's sports stars.

The controversy was sparked by the decision of the National Sports Administration to expel Olympic gold medalist Tian Liang from the national team last month for violating its rules and engaging in too many commercial activities.

Tian, 25, is one of China's most famous divers, winning gold and silver medals in Sydney in 2000 and gold and bronze at the Athens Olympics in August last year.

Like other mainland sports stars, he wants to emulate the earning power of basketball superstar Yao Ming, who is taking US$4 million a year in wages and millions more in endorsements playing for the Houston Rockets in the National Basketball Association.

What is at stake is the 56-year-old Communist sports system, whose specialised academies train young people from an early age and coach them to international level.

Does the fruit of their success belong to the individual or the state?

The NSA expelled Tian, sending him back to his provincial team in Shaanxi, saying that he had broken its rules by hiring an agent and negotiating deals on his own, instead of going through the official sports body to which he belongs - the National Swimming Association - which would receive a portion of the earnings.

After the Athens Olympics, Tian threw himself into commercial activities with a variety of companies and is said to have put on more than six kg, 10 per cent of his Olympic weight of 60 kg.

But what enraged it most was a contract at the start of January with the Emperor Entertainment Group of Hong Kong, to help launch Tian into a career in films and singing. Industry estimates put the contract value at 30 million yuan.

The association was angry that he signed the deal without consulting with it and that it was not entitled to a portion of the money.

In a statement, Tian said he would work hard to win back his place in the national team but made no mention of sharing the money.

In fact, like Tian, many of China's sports stars have their own agents, contravening a 1998 regulation, but the authorities turn a blind eye.

In an editorial on the controversy, the Economic Observer came down firmly on the side of the NSA. 'Under the system we have, a sports star belongs not only to himself but to the state, which spent money to train him. You are winning glory for the state and must return to it a portion of your earnings.'

Another Athens gold medal diver, Guo Jingjing, was more fortunate. She also threw herself into commercial work after the games, with her sponsors including McDonalds, but was allowed to stay on the national team after making a 'self-criticism'.

Yao Ming solves the issue by giving a large portion of his earnings to the China Basketball Association - up to 50 per cent according to reports in the official media - and playing in the national team.