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Swimmer Sun Yang is China’s most influential star.  NBA Player Zhou Qi is 10th. 

Sun still rising as China’s ‘most influential’ star

By Sun Xiaochen 

Sun still rising as China's 'most influential' star

Olympic swimming champion Sun Yang has been named China’s “most influential athlete” for the fourth straight year, underlining the major roles celebrity and marketing play in forging stardom.

Sun, a three-time Olympic freestyle gold medalist, topped an annual ranking of the 50 most influential sports personalities in China, as voted by media representatives.

Board game sensation Ke Jie, the world’s greatest Go player, ranks second, with men’s table tennis star Zhang Jike third.

The vote, organized by the China Sports Publications Corporation, weighed athletes’ athletic performance, personal profiles, media exposure and marketing potential from August 2016 to September this year.

“In the era of social media, star athletes are expanding their fame beyond the sports sphere and into entertainment and business circles – significantly boosting their profiles,” said Li Shengxin, a sports management researcher at Beijing Sport University.

As the leader of China’s male swimming squad, Sun won 200m freestyle gold at last year’s Rio Olympics, following victories in the 400 and 1,500m at London 2012, becoming the first swimmer in history to sweep golds across short and long distances.

He also won 200 and 400m golds at the July world championships in Budapest, taking his world-title tally to nine, and swept six golds at the National Games one month later.

Out of the pool, Sun attracts the spotlight as an aspiring singer and a regular guest on TV reality shows – helping solidify his celebrity status and boost his appeal to sponsors.

Despite incidents such as being caught driving without a license in 2013 and a three-month drug suspension in 2014, Sun remains a megastar in China, evidenced by his 32 million followers on Weibo.

Sun still rising as China's 'most influential' star

“His breakthrough results in events long dominated by Western swimmers have been significant enough … his strong personality and presence on social media have only amplified his influence,” said Wang Yongzhi, general manager of Tencent’s sports brokerage section.

World No 1 Go player Ke grabbed global headlines by battling Google’s artificial intelligence program AlphaGo in May.

The hyped man-vs-machine showdown, coupled with Ke’s close interactions with fans on social media, boosted both his own profile and that of the niche game.

“Ke’s high position has shown the increasing diversity of public appreciation for athletes and how topical subjects (such as AI) can affect the prominence of an event,” said Li.

Table tennis ace Zhang managed to rank third in the voting despite an injury-hampered year that saw his results dip.

Zhang became the fastest paddler in history to achieve a career grand slam after winning three majors – the 2011 world championships, the 2011 World Cup and London 2012 Olympics – in 445 days, but he failed to defend his gold medal at the Rio Games.

Other high-profile athletes in the top 10 include China’s first men’s 100m freestyle world champion swimmer Ning Zetao (4th), star spiker Zhu Ting of China’s Olympic champion women’s volleyball team (6th) and NBA prospect Zhou Qi (10th) of the Houston Rockets.



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