China's favourite son faces more hurdles

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 21 October, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 21 October, 2007, 12:00am

Liu Xuegen answers his mobile on a hilltop at a coastal resort in Hangzhou. He is snatching some precious moments of peace away from his exhausting full-time job - being the dad of China's most celebrated athlete.

Such serenity is rare for members of the Liu household. But what is one more phone call amid the incessant media ballyhoo and multi-million-dollar personality cult that impacts on their lives day and night?

Besides, it's high time someone tells a cautionary tale to the millions of young Chinese who adore his superstar son, and who want to emulate his fame and fortune.

'I think the best moments in his week are our night-time visits to his dorm at his training complex,' his dad says.

'He relishes the home-made snacks and dishes his mother and I take along. Sometimes, when we're together, we look back to those carefree days before the Athens Olympics. But this topic usually fades out soon after it begins. We know we have to face life as it is now and accept what it throws at us.'

Liu senior, a former state-owned utility company chauffeur in Shanghai, is quick to reinforce a plain, simple fact that Liu is an athlete, something which been long lost in the mounting hubbub that's been created since his world-shaking victory in Athens in 2004.

Of course, Liu's success is welcomed by his proud mother and father. But other than a world record, gold medal, riches and the other trappings sporting celebrity status brings, such fame throws up more obstacles than the 10 hurdles the 24-year-old superstar encounters on the track.

'He is just an athlete, not a spokesperson for a certain cause or anything else,' insists his father, who quit his job to 'take care' of his son.

'There's not much we can do for Xiang, really,' he says, 'except for giving him suggestions about his behaviour in public and taking media interviews on his behalf, so as to try to free him from the agony of answering repeated questions.'

It's a demanding job.

'There are too many well-connected companies and government agencies soliciting his appearance and commitments and too many journalists seeking his quotes. It's difficult to say no. So it's quite some workload.'

Elsewhere in the world, professional personal managers shield superstars from the invasive glare of media and fans. But that's not the case for China's favourite son.

Like tens of thousands of his fellow state-funded sportsmen and women, Liu's career is controlled by sports authorities. The men in suits and black government Audis negotiate all his commercial deals - estimated to worth more than 100 million yuan annually - and in doing so pull down significant commissions.

But even the officials from the Track and Field Management Centre under the State General Sports Administration have set a limit on the cash cow in their charge, and vow to put brakes on all Liu's off-track commitments - including sponsorship-related appearances, TV commercials and public charity activities - after January 1.

The blackout is to rule out any distraction over the final phase of his preparation for the Beijing Olympics. A gold medal on home soil in the sacred track and field competition is worth far more to the prestige of China than a fat monthly pay cheque to a gaggle of sports officials.

But Liu Xuegen remains sceptical over the depth of control the sports ministry has on his offspring, and doesn't believe the media and fan scrum will cease come January 1.

'Yes, the government is managing my son's career, but things usually play out of their hands,' he reveals. 'I don't believe all the chaos will come to a full stop next year. People with the right connections will still have their way. Even with a professional manager in place, it's just impossible to keep all the requests for appearances at bay.

'All the publicity could well turn out to be a disaster,' he says, because being mobbed by waves of autograph hunters at poorly organised events has irritated the otherwise easy-going hurdler.

'But the biggest frustration is the high Olympic expectation,' says his father. 'Everybody greets him with the question: 'Are you confident of winning that gold medal in Beijing?' I mean, it's OK being asked about it 10 times, or even 100 times. But not 100,000 times. It really drives him up the wall.'

Most of us mortals would gladly trade some of our freedom for fame and fortune. After all, the overwhelming public adulation brings an estimated annual income of 58 million yuan to the Liu family, according to Forbes magazine.

The family has moved out of a dilapidated apartment to an upmarket government-awarded flat in Shanghai.

Despite the wealth and fame, Liu Xuegen and his wife, Ji Fenhua, are not so sure it's worth the price.

'Sometimes I just feel a bit sorry for my son,' admits his father. 'He is not able to have a normal social life like a normal 24-year-old. He can't dine out with friends or sing in a karaoke bar because anything like that would cause a public security concern. He has lost touch with almost all his old buddies because of this.'

The frustration was visible last month when a reporter asked Liu Xiang to recommend a few downtown sight-seeing spots in his home town to fellow hurdlers competing at the Shanghai Golden Grand Prix.

He drew a blank: 'I really can't think of any up-to-date recommendations because it has been a long time since I last went onto the streets,' he said.

The star spends most of the year at a boarding school-style suburban sports complex, 20km from his family apartment. His coach Sun Haiping, an avuncular 52-year-old, is far from the usual stereotype of control-freakish Chinese sports officials.

His training regime never lasts longer than a few hours a day, which is in sharp contrast to some of his colleagues who prefer to run athletes into the ground on a daily basis. Nor does he take possession of Liu Xiang's cellphone and laptop to ensure his charge is 100 per cent concentrating on the job in hand.

But whatever the training regime, the isolated life cannot be easy for a young millionaire, who has nowhere to go and no one to spend his soaring wealth with.

Luckily for the Lius, one of the biggest hurdles - next year's Olympics - is looming large on the horizon. And if he snatches gold, Liu senior might want to book a longer stay up that mountain in Hangzhou - and turn the phone off.