DEBORAH AMOS, host:
And those Chinese athletes who win the medals are usually clean-cut, without political baggage, capable of stoking national pride. They're also set to exploit their own marketing power. But when you mix commerce with sports, and China's emerging free market, there are bound to be clashes with what's left of China's planned economy.
In the latest of our Olympic profiles, NPR's Louisa Lim tells the cautionary tale of one fallen idol.
(Soundbite of splash and cheers)
LOUISA LIM: This was diver Tian Liang's moment of triumph - the Sydney Olympics, the year 2000. Just 21 years old, the fresh-faced boy was nicknamed the child prodigy or the diver prince. He won the gold medal for the 10-meter platform dive - a maneuver he had practiced for an entire year.
He remembers that moment.
Mr. TIAN LIANG (Diver): (Through translator) When I had that gold medal in my hands, I thought it showed my efforts to prove myself among my competitors. Of course my country had placed great hope in me. And after they got the news, I thought, oh, I've done a glorious thing for China. But that was after the fact.
LIM: He parlayed that success and another silver medal into endless advertising deals - for nutritional supplements, running machines, even wooden floors.
(Soundbite of advertisement)
LIM: He also topped the gossip columns for his high-profile relationship with another diver; celebrity behavior seen as unbecoming for a national sports star. Four years later in Athens he took home yet another gold and a bronze, boosting his stock still further. Too far, perhaps, for the sports czars governing diving.
In 2005, Tian Liang's income was $1.5 million. And that year he was unceremoniously booted off the national team, accused of not asking permission for his commercial activities. To this day, Tian Liang insists he stuck by the rules but became a victim of circumstance.
Mr. TIAN: (Through translator) Many things happened. That's not to say I was wrong or I should apologize. There were misunderstandings and miscommunications.
LIM: Observers say Tian Liang's fate is symptomatic of deeper problems.
Ms. SUSAN BROWNELL (University of Missouri): What we've seen for a number of years now is the conflict between the market economy in sports and the state-planned aspect of sports.
LIM: Susan Brownell is a sports anthropologist from the University of Missouri who's worked for many years in China. She explains why sports stars have to hand over a big slice of any deal - sometimes as much as 50 percent - to the government-run sports federations that trained them.
Ms. BROWNELL: The state had already invested so much money in them that the way the Chinese, it's phrased, is that they belong to the state. (Chinese spoken) You know, and this almost gets back to the parent-child relationship in China too. The idea that a parent supports a child and raises a child to a certain point, and when that child has some success, they owe their parents some payback.
(Soundbite of advertisement)
Mr. YAO MING (Basketball Star): Can I write a check?
Unidentified Man: Yo.
Mr. YAO: Yao.
Unidentified Man: Yo.
LIM: China's biggest sports earner, basketball star Yao Ming, raked in $55 million last year, according to Forbes magazine. The NBA superstar handed millions back to the government-run sports federation. These organizations still control almost every aspect of their athletes' lives - even the international superstars.
Ms. LI LI LEUNG (Managing Director, Helios Partners): When we sign a deal with an athlete who is a current athlete and within the federation system, the normal process is that you first knock on the doors of the federation. And so the federation is actually the frontline in terms of access to the athlete.
LIM: Li Li Leung is the managing director of sports marketer Helios Partners in Beijing. She says the Olympics might mark a turning point.
Ms. LI: We have heard that there will be some changes. But in terms of the exact changes that will go on, no details have been shared yet. There is a possibility in the future in terms of - for example, will sponsors be able to go to the athletes directly as opposed to having to through the federation? It will be an ideal situation if market does become much more free.
(Soundbite of music)
LIM: But with money comes rebellion, as Tian Liang's example shows. So reforming the sports sector could lessen the government's iron grip over its athletes. That control was so all-encompassing that Tian Liang admits when he left diving he did not know how to order food in a restaurant or buy plane tickets by himself. Nowadays he professes to be content with his lot, though he still thinks about the Beijing Olympics with some sorrow.
Mr. TIAN: (Through translator) I have a few regrets because I'm used to participating in the Olympics as an athlete. But sometimes things happen that you don't anticipate.
LIM: With that, he goes back to posing for a fashion spread against a backdrop of wine bottles. What so striking is this: three years on, this former golden boy is still on-message, refusing to publicly criticize the system that rejected him. Its financial and practical hold over him is long gone, but the mental bonds may prove harder to break.
Louisa Lim, NPR News, Shanghai.
AMOS: Tomorrow, Louisa Lim concludes her series on China's government-run athletic system by looking at how closely Chinese nationalism and sports are intertwined.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.