One city, two stars

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 25 July, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 25 July, 2006, 12:00am

If Yao Ming was Shanghai's sports hero last year, then hurdler Liu Xiang is this year's champion. On July 11, Liu broke a 13-year-old world record for the 110-metre hurdles at an international event in Lausanne, Switzerland, clocking 12.88 seconds. That achievement tripled his commercial value overnight. An electrical appliance firm that was offering him an advertisement contract for 3.5 million yuan before his record run is now being asked for 12 million.

Liu and the Bank of Communications launched a new Visa credit card last week bearing the hurdler's image - the first such card in China to use an individual's picture.

'Liu embodies the spirit of boldly taking on challenges and exceeding himself, which is inspiring more and more people,' said Qian Wenhui, vice-president of the bank. 'Our bank must learn from him.'

Forbes magazine ranks Liu in third place as the most marketable Chinese, after Yao and film actress Zhang Ziyi. Both Liu and Yao are natives of Shanghai. City residents greatly admire Yao, the first Chinese to become a star in the National Basketball Association, but they prefer Liu as a personality.

'I feel closer to him,' said Wu Mei, a 25-year-old secretary. 'He is more endearing and attractive than Yao, who looks strange and has an unusually large face. Liu put his Athens Olympic gold medal under his pillow, because he thought it was not real. He woke up the next morning and found, to his surprise, it was still there. I like that.'

He is a keen singer, enjoys ice cream and collects coins, adding to his collection when he goes abroad. Immediately after his record-setting race, he called his mother in Shanghai, at 4am local time - the day before his 23rd birthday.

He receives dozens of letters from female fans. After the Athens Games, he came home to find three boxes of them. 'I read them all and locked them safely in a drawer,' he said. 'Before the 2008 Olympics, I want to break the record again, and have no time for love affairs. I hope everyone likes me - but not loves me.'

If Liu has more girlfriends, Yao still ranks higher as a role model. Last month the Chinese Basketball Association ranked him as China's most influential athlete. People admire him for making it in the world's top league, being selected several times for the all-star team, and becoming a celebrity worldwide, as well as at home.

Liu has just begun the process. He does not like commercial activities, preferring to concentrate on his hurdling, and detests the paparazzi treatment that comes with a gold medal and a world record. Now he is a star - but only time will tell if the hurdler can become a superstar.