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Young Stars Shooting for Gold in Athens
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Sports celebrities in China come in a wide range of shapes and sizes. Some tower under the bucket like NBA center Yao Ming, others glide over hurdles like Liu Xiang, churn up the pool like breaststroke specialist Luo Xuejuan, spike a volleyball like Zhao Ruirui or move around the court like Lin Dan, the world's top male badminton player.


But there is one other ingredient unrelated to sporting prowess that gets fans going crazy about them: they are all pretty vocal.


Talkativeness is one of the fresh personality traits being demonstrated by China's new generation of sporting stars.


They are wiser, smarter and know how to sell themselves, wear the right clothes and strike the right poses.


The new characteristics have allowed them to move from the sporting arena into the lives of young fans, who see them more as pop stars--a shift that also helps improve the sketchy reputation of the state-run training system.


Predictably, China's best-loved athletes will be among those to be watched during the Athens Olympics in August.


Quick-witted Yao. Since entering the NBA as the No. 1 draft pick, Yao has managed many admirable achievements: a 41-point game high, two All-Star Game appearances, a five-game playoff match against the Los Angeles Lakers, who have already made it into the finals this season, and two huge deals with Pepsi-Cola and McDonald's.


And the way the center has dealt with all of the attention since touching down in Houston in 2002 has helped him to win hearts of people around the world.


Although Yao's English skills do not allow him to communicate freely in the United States, his huge sense of humor and quick wit shines through.


That might explain why, after a victory over the Phoenix Suns last season, he described front court teammate Kelvin Cato--who had four blocks compared to Yao's two--as “a guardian of our rim.”


Yao, carrying lofty hopes on his shoulders, is acclimatizing to the NBA and American culture incredibly quickly, while having an impact on fans everywhere.


“The more he lets NBA fans see of him, the more they will realize he is the answer to all that critics find wrong with the league today,” reads an article in ESPN's NBA Magazine.


“He doesn't give any more importance to himself or the game than is deserved. He isn't letting his fame distract him from the task at hand.”


Interestingly, Yao will anchor China's national basketball team during its group encounters against the US Dream Team in Athens.


Can Yao use his NBA experience to tip the table in favor of China? Only time will tell, but regardless of the outcome Yao will be quick with a comment for the media and fans to scrutinize.


Fashionable Liu. Hurdler Liu Xiang set a new Asian record time of 13.06 seconds in the men's 110 meters at the Japan Grand Prix in Osaka earlier this month, beating world champion Allen Johnson in the bargain. Liu is one of the new generation of young sports stars in China.


Liu is also the first Chinese male to win a medal at the World Athletics Championships, and he brought home a silver medal from the World Indoor Championships earlier this year.


Beside those shining results, Liu sets himself apart from teammates with his fashionable image.


He is a far cry from maverick track coach Ma Junren turning farmers into top long-distance runners.


When not focusing on the hurdles, Liu raves over Asian pop idols Jacky Cheung and David Tao, plays online video games and enjoys karaoke.


During an interview with a national TV station that was seen by tens of millions of spectators, he belted out a popular song so intoxicatingly that some might have expected a career change.


“Like other young people, I like things like surfing the Internet, playing pool and going out with friends to enjoy karaoke,” Liu said.


The 20-year-old also pays special attention to his hair by getting brown highlights--a rare concession to fashion for a Chinese athlete.


A nonconformist spirit might be the catalyst for Liu's meteoric rise.


“Liu has the most international experience in terms of appearances among the members of our team,” said Feng Shuyong, head coach of China's national track squad. “He knows how to compete and always gives his best.”


Although he beat his own idol--multiple world title-holder Johnson--Liu remains humble and wants to keep a low profile.


“I am nobody special,” he says. “Frankly, I don't really like the limelight.”


But like it nor not, he is regarded as one of China's few hopes for an Olympic track title at this year's Games and in 2008 in Beijing.


Outspoken Luo. Next to the unassuming Liu, triple swimming world title-holder Luo is famous for her assertiveness.


The talented swimmer who collected three gold medals at the Barcelona World Championships is explosive both in and out of the water, making her a human headline wherever she goes.


Fans still remember what she said in relation to the alleged drug problem during the Ninth National Games in Guangzhou in 2001.


“The water in the pool is not clean,” Luo said, referring to the astonishing results of some pre-event nobodies, who she claimed had taken drugs.


Media outlets throughout the nation picked up the comment.


But the 20-year-old from Hangzhou, in east China's Zhejiang Province, says she is comfortable with her policy of speaking her mind.


“I just say what I want to say,” Luo said.


And when Luo does not want to do something, she sticks to it. She once refused to do a TV interview because of a blemish on her face and only finally agreed to an aural interview.


Powered by that strong will, it is not difficult to understand why she is so successful in the pool.


In the women's 100-meter breaststroke final at the Barcelona championships last year, Luo held her nerve to beat Aussie Leisel Jones, who had already broken the world record in the semi-finals. Luo was not considered a gold medal favorite.


“I am a beast ready to dart through the water,” she once described herself. “I think my biggest rival is myself.”


After performing poorly in winning the 100-meter title at last month's national trials for Athens, Luo said: “I'm saving my best for the Olympics.”


Volleyball beauty. Unlike Luo, Zhao Ruirui, the top spiker and ace member of the volleyball World Cup-winning Chinese team, is not ready to predict her future.


In addition to her intimidating skills on court, the 23-year-old has been voted the best looker on the team by a fan poll.


“I do not think I am that beautiful,” said the 1.93-meter (6-foot-4) spiker.


Since the volleyball prodigy started to shine at international competitions, her name has been frequently linked with beauty, like tennis' Anna Kournikova.


But she is taking it all in her large stride.


“I do not mind being called beautiful because all of the players on the team are beautiful,” she said.


Zhao's pursuit of beauty is obvious: one of her hobbies is painting and another is designing garments.


“I want to be a designer after retirement,” she says.


But Zhao knows that what she needs most now is to play beautiful volleyball at Athens to help the team bring home the gold, which last happened in 1986 at the Los Angeles Olympics.


“Winning an Olympic gold medal has always been my biggest dream,” she said.


“Super Dan.” For the current world No. 1 shuttler Lin Dan, a badminton Olympic gold is already firmly in his sights. 


The stylish left-hander, who just anchored the Chinese men's side to win back the Thomas Cup in Jakarta, kept an unbeaten run during the tournament including a crucial 2-0 win over Denmark's former world No. 1 Peter Gade in the final.


The flamboyant Lin, who likes to encourage supporters to get behind him and gives a military salute every time he wins, is so unusual among the star-studded squad that he has been dubbed “Super Dan” by the international badminton federation for his on-court behavior.


His flashy character was there for all to see during the final, which featured successive all-court dive saves and the ripping off of his shirt in celebration.


“His passion on the court is one of his weapons,” says Li Yongbo, head coach of the Chinese national badminton team. And the red-hot 20-year-old does not hesitate when talking about his Athens goal.


“Gold, that's my only goal,” he said.


(China Daily May 27, 2004)

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