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Asian Games 2018

Asian Games: is Sun Yang’s Michael Jordan-esque cover-up a protest or compromise? – Chinese social media is lapping it up

The China swimming superstar covered the sponsor’s logo on his official uniform with the national flag after being criticised for an earlier infringement

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 21 August, 2018, 10:53am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 21 August, 2018, 10:31pm

Was controversial China swimming star Sun Yang’s Michael Jordan-esque decision to cover his delegation-issue uniform with the Chinese flag during Monday’s Asian Games medal ceremony an act of protest or a compromise? Whatever his intentions, Chinese netizens have gone into an often comedic frenzy.

The 26-year-old Sun is caught between two sponsors – Anta, which is the Chinese delegation’s official sponsor, and his own 361° brand. After winning the Asian Games 800m men’s freestyle event on Monday, Sun came out for the medal ceremony in the bright yellow colours of his personal sponsor.

Later in the evening, during the ceremony for the men’s 4x200m men’s relay – in which China finished second – Sun was wearing the official uniform but he covered the white top with the Chinese flag, looking at times like a brooding red batman without the cowl.

One mainland media outlet compared Sun’s action to that of former NBA legend Michael Jordan. At the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, Jordan covered himself in the US flag to obscure the team’s official sponsor, Reebok, because he was backed by Nike.

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China sportswear giant Anta issued a statement saying it had created an award-winning suit for the Chinese delegation that represented the spiritual force of the mainland athletes and that according to the contract, they must “wear the official award-winning uniforms when they step on the podium”.

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It said the suit was not only a symbol of the athletes’ outstanding performance but also portrays the country’s reputation, image and credibility – something three-time Olympic champion Sun, although clearly a patriot, has not really given high priority throughout his career.

The statement then offered a backhanded condemnation of Sun’s decision to promote his 361° brand – one of Anta’s main competitors – on the podium by saying personal interests are not above national interests.

Last year, Anta signed a renewal of their agreement with China until 2024.

Wang Qi, and sports industry expert, wrote on Chinese social media site Sina Weibo: “For sports, it is very important to obey the rules-and that includes the associated business rules. While the whole Chinese delegation is wearing the white-and-red uniform of Anta, only Sun Yang chose a yellow outfit of 361°. It appears like a violation of the rules.”

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Clearly the message reached Sun between the 800m and the relay – the first and last events of Monday’s swimming programme. While he wore the official suit for the relay presentation, he was conspicuously covered in the blood red of the Chinese flag while his teammates were in matching white tops.

Whether he was capitulating or rebelling only Sun knows, but it was a clever ploy because no one – not even the official sponsor – can question his loyalty to the Chinese flag.

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After all, Sun was genuinely upset on Sunday during the 200m freestyle medal ceremony, which he had won, when the flags fell down as the national anthem played just before they reached the top of the flagpoles. Sun immediately stepped off his podium and asked officials to repeat the anthem.

So when it comes to wrapping himself in the Chinese flag, no one would think to criticise one of China’s most flamboyant and controversial athletes.

Still, some netizens were unhappy. One wrote: “National honours are greater than personal honours. In the Asian Games, the brand of personal endorsement must obey the brand endorsed by the delegation. This is also a discipline, and personal interests should not conflict with national honours.”

To which another replied: “How did the Sports Bureau and Anta’s commercial interests become national honours? If it is related to national honour, have you bought it? Is your family wearing it?”

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One person, in support of Sun, wrote: “Are you missing the brain that says the spirit of the contract [should be observed]? The national team has a contract with Anta. Does Sun Yang and 361° have no contract? Sun Yang is the spirit of the contract. When the national team signed the sponsorship, did it discuss with each team member? What measures have you taken? And Anta’s shamelessness has risen to the national level. What is it?”

Expect Sun to continue to wear the Chinese flag as a cape in his final two events at the Asian Games. The two-metre giant still entertains in and out of the pool.