Peddle to the medal
WHEN OLYMPIC GOLD medallist Liu Xuan retired from gymnastics in 2001 for a career in the image-obsessed entertainment business, she was determined she wouldn't get tied up in knots about other people's ideas of beauty. 'I told myself that I was an Olympic champion, so I would try to assert my healthy image,' says the petite 25-year-old. 'It's another type of beauty.'
It wasn't long, however, before she went on a diet. It seemed that her diminutive build - 46kg on a 157cm frame - was fine for performing seemingly impossible somersaults on a balance beam - but not to stand in a lineup of actresses.
Five years on, Liu's new figure has netted her stints as a sports presenter, and roles in film and television, with a musical career in the offing. But her body still needs work, she says, so she's back on a diet. 'I have too many muscles,' she says, flexing her arms to show the bulges under her skintight black pullover. 'I want to be more slender.'
Liu may well remain on a diet for the rest of her showbiz career - like all the other actors and singers who understand the first commandment in entertainment: thou shalt look good. It's one of many tenets that Liu and other mainland sports stars have discovered as they embark on careers in entertainment. Talent and willpower will get you far on the athletic track, says Liu, but there's a lot more to being a hit in front of the cameras.
Image is paramount. China's first Olympic gold swimmer Zhuang Yong holds the Olympian acting record of starring in three films: Tam Long-chung's 1995 comedy Just Married; Alfred Cheung Kin-ting's 1998 drama The Group; and Clarence Fok's 1998 action-romance Her Name is Cat. However, her career was short-lived, largely due to her image. Audiences found her too mannish and filmmakers couldn't pair her with actors who were masculine enough.
Acting ability helps. Olympic gold-medal gymnast Li Ning now runs what's possibly the most successful Chinese sporting-goods company (which also owns Action China, the agency that looks after Liu) on the mainland. But Li's talents as an actor were less obvious. His film debut with Michelle Yeoh Choo Kheng in the 1994 action comedy drama The Wonder Seven displayed his gymnastic prowess and not much else, effectively putting an end to his film career.
Veteran martial arts choreographer Gordon Lau Kar-fai, who appeared with Li in the 1993 TVB series Heroes from Shaolin, offered his own insight on Li's performance in a 2004 interview: 'His action part is perfect, much better than mine, but he doesn't know how to perform.'
The ability to 'play the game' is also a must. Olympians are used to hard work, but gruelling production schedules coupled with endless auditions, press interviews and networking opportunities require a different kind of commitment. When Zhuang, whose marriage to TVB sports reporter Ken Lau was ending at the time, left the entertainment industry in 1998, she cited the demands made on her as an issue. 'It's interesting to try different things in life,' she later told Chinese Central Television's (CCTV) Sports Channel. 'But acting is too tiresome as you're always expected to do what you're asked to.' Zhuang now runs an advertising company in her home town, Shanghai.
'Entertainment is much more complicated [than sports],' says Liu. 'Apart from your talent and strong will, you have to know about proper exposure [and build] good relationships with industry people, the public and the media. To an extent, the competition is much fiercer and crueller than sports.'
Despite the challenges of showbiz, it's becoming the career of choice for retired mainland sports stars, particularly those whose education came a distant second to rigorous training schedules.
There has been a marked shift since China embraced a market-based economy. Traditionally, Olympians were protected by the Sports Administration, which found them jobs as coaches or administrative officials on retirement. Others were sent to work at state-owned enterprises as factory workers or security guards. Today, more athletes are having to fend for themselves as state-owned enterprises lay off large numbers of workers and positions in the Sports Administration are few and far between (too many gold medallists, not enough jobs).
For some, sadly, it's been a dramatic fall from grace. A newspaper in Changchun, Jilin province, reported recently that the 1990 national weightlifting champion Zou Chunlan was eking out a living as a cleaner in a public bathhouse.
All things considered, Liu has been successful. When her gymnastics career ended after the 2000 Sydney Olympics, her good looks helped secure advertising contracts. Deals with the likes of mineral water producer Nongfu Shanquan and the World Gold Council - which earned her five million yuan in 2001 - made her the second-biggest earning sports star that year. She was topped only by diving champion Fu Mingxia, who brought in seven million yuan, and went on to marry former financial secretary Antony Leung Kam-chung.
Liu also made a smart move: she went back to school. In 2001, she started a journalism course at Peking University, although she had to take a break when her first film role came up the next year.
Her performance as a kindhearted migrant worker in Manfred Wong's melodrama Far From Home earned some praise at home. TV offers followed and she appeared in three soap operas. At the same time, she was also busy developing a sideline as a sports presenter, covering events for CCTV and hosting a programme for Hunan Satellite Television in her home town, Changsha.
'I'm not a professional actress, but I'm eager to learn,' she says. Her schedule has left little time for professional training, but Liu hopes for roles than can make the most of her gymnastic ability, preferably playing strong-willed action heroines that reflect the tougher side of her nature.
Liu is careful to guard her image after an early blunder. She drew much criticism for the heavy makeup and gaudy costume she wore for the cover of a Sichuan gossip monthly, Life on Stage.
'It's difficult to change from one field to another,' she says, recalling the incident. 'My image as an Olympic champion is ingrained in the public mind and they didn't expect to see a new one. Besides, I was young at the time and didn't know how to choose. You never know what suits you best if you don't try.'
She made sure not to repeat the same mistake for the promotional shots she did for a visit to Hong Kong earlier this year to record her first solo single, My Wish for You, which is being released on EOLAsia.com. If that does well, she hopes to release two more songs later this year.
'I've always been interested in singing and performing since I was a gymnast,' she says. 'Now I'm happy that they've finally become my jobs.'
Her plans of staying in Hong Kong to pursue a singing career - and to learn Cantonese - will have to take a back seat though. Liu is returning to university to complete her journalism degree.
Liu is preparing herself for all eventualities. On top of her acting, presenting and singing careers, she's just taken an examination to become a certified gymnastics judge. If all goes to plan, could she be back at the Olympics in 2008? She smiles and quotes an Adidas slogan: 'Impossible is nothing.'