Diving for cover

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 27 March, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 27 March, 2011, 12:00am

China's abdicating Queen of Sport, Guo Jingjing, revealed this week she would not be retreating behind the scenes to quietly advise her potential heirs on how to win multiple golds. Instead, the four-time Olympic diving gold medallist said she was shunning frontline sport to seek a 'quiet and normal life' - an existence far away from the rigours of the government's sports training regime, the fickle limelight and the steely glare of the state media.

'I think a quiet and normal life suits me,' said Guo, who in January ended her all-conquering career that saw her claim 17 world titles.

Many among her loyal admirers wonder if a modest, humble, hermit-like existence for China's gossip-page pin-up - also dubbed the 'Diving Diva' - is an Olympic-sized self-delusion, if not an impossibility.

One of the country's most successful athletes in terms of titles won and commercial contracts signed, Guo is blessed with good looks, a movie-star figure and the ability to attract unwanted attention in and out of the pool.

She's romantically linked to the playboy grandson of the late Hong Kong tycoon Henry Fok Ying-tung, has regularly thumbed her nose to mainland sports' overbearing authorities, is courted by the marketing chiefs of blue-chip brands, has made pouting at the media an art form and earns a fortune.

And she's a retiree, at just 29.

Yet despite her desire for tranquility, there was nothing hushed about the controversial star's first major public appearance since bowing out, to promote a sportswear brand for one of her many commercial sponsors. It is normal for such product launches on the mainland to be exceptionally loud, crude and kitsch affairs, packed with adoring fans, ear-piercing PA systems, security guards and scores of elbowing paparazzi.

Clutching a microphone, Guo paired up with fellow A list celeb-royale, pop singer Jane Zhang (known to her parents as Zhang Liangying), to cavort on stage with a man dressed in a panda costume and to sing the praises of her sponsor's latest fashion line.

Such protocol is second nature for Jane Zhang. But Guo, even with her signature ice-cool glare, svelte figure and headline-making reputation, appeared ill at ease as she sought to emulate the singer's sparkling, bright and breezy act. Winning the Olympic synchronised 3m board gold medal twice with dive partner Wu Minxia looked an easier achievement than this week's stab at product placement pantomime.

But Guo, whose royal monikers also include the Princess of the Pool, remains duty-bound to her voyeuristic public. After the theatrics, the Hebei native was forced to endure another engagement that she has made no bones about detesting - a press conference.

'I always feel uneasy in front of you guys,' she told the media, adding: 'I do not like being in the limelight or answering questions.'

Guo and the mainland media have endured a strained relationship during her two decades at the top. Few have forgotten her 'that fatty' quip - her reply when asked at a Fina test event a few months before the 2008 Beijing Olympics about who she believed to be her closet rival. She was referring to Canadian diver Blythe Hartley.

The insult, coupled with an 'inattentive' attitude and general 'bad manners' such as texting on her mobile phone during press conferences, caused the state media to turn on her. She was branded 'rude' by a nation undergoing a civility drive as it prepared to host the world. As their red mist descended, the leader writers lost sight of her untouchable sporting prowess. Guo was declared a poor role model for China's aspiring athletes and squeaky-clean youth.

Her coach, Zhou Jihong, made excuses for her, saying she was 'just a child who cannot perfectly express herself'.

In doing so, Zhou exposed the harsh realities of the hermetically sealed training centres - the sport-obsessed boot camps where promising young athletes are denied a 'normal' development, and instead are fast-tracked to the medal podium in the quest for glory.

No wonder, perhaps, that Guo, a product of her environment who spent nine years (from aged six) in such a camp before her debut aged 15, announced she was all but snubbing the sport that has defined her, and instead will spend time catching up on her lost, formative years. She said since retiring two months ago, she had 'much to learn'.

'I am learning English right now. I also read books to get to know more about the world,' she added.

She revealed she was going through a period of rehabilitation, and how basic, daily decision-making is a struggle. 'You did not have to worry about meals every day as everything was always prepared at the big canteen at the training centres. Now I'm struggling to think about where to have my next meal. Sometimes I even have to cook for myself. That is what I still need to get accustomed to.'

She says she misses diving, but not enough to return full-time to the sport in any capacity, and so striking a blow to the aspiring mainland athletes hoping she would pass on tips about her Midas touch.

'I don't want to be a coach. I am a quiet and soft-hearted person and not suited to being a trainer. You have to be strict with young athletes during training and competitions, but I am afraid I could not do that,' she said.

But she admits she misses diving, and is seeking a cameo part for next year's London 2012 Olympics. 'I want to go to London - but in a different role, and do something for the diving team,' she said.

During her press conference, Guo frequently used the word freedom to describe her life since she brought down the curtain on her remarkable career and severed the government's apron strings.

In China's conformist society, her rebellious streak is a cause celebre among other Chinese also seeking to push personal boundaries.

She has not followed sprinter Liu Xiang into the corridors of power; golden boy Liu was once more photographed and lauded earlier this month at the annual National People's Congress in Beijing.

Guo was famously kicked out of Team China with her then boyfriend and fellow athlete, Tian Liang, after the 2004 Athens Olympics, because the authorities said the couple were undertaking too many commercial contracts; such free thinking autonomy and abundance of paid links with the likes of McDonalds, is banned by the government sports mechanics.

But her talent (plus an apology) ensured the door was not closed for long and China's prodigal daughter was allowed to return.

So with nothing to prove and time on her hands except sing-alongs with panda mascots, are wedding bells and perhaps the patter of tiny feet on the cards with Kenneth Fok Kai-kong, probed one daring reporter. 'I do not want to talk about my private life,' she replied firmly.

Discovering her emancipation is her preoccupation. But 'freedom' is a controversial concept on the mainland with censors blocking text and e-mail messages containing the word.

Yet Guo is revelling in her new-found independence. 'I see myself as a normal person now ... and I enjoy my life. This is a real life,' she said. 'I have lots of freedom right now and I like it.'