Sports stars are riding the crest of a successful Beijing Olympics to increasingly captivate the Chinese imagination and media attention, with more athletes appearing on this year's Forbes China list of the top 100 celebrities.
Twenty-two athletes made their way into the line-up this year, up from 18 last year and 17 in 2007, Forbes China reported on Tuesday.
NBA star Yao Ming topped the list with the most media exposure and the highest pre-tax annual income of 357 million yuan ($52 million), beating actress Zhang Ziyi whose ubiquitous coverage in entertainment magazines contributed to her second spot.
It is the sixth time in a row for the 2.29-m-tall Yao to stand atop a list mostly made up of people in the entertainment industry this year.
Rising basketball star Yi Jianlian, who ranked 53 in 2007, soared to fourth place last year and stepped up to the third this year. Forbes cited the wide acclaim Yi received for helping the Chinese men's basketball team reach the top eight at last year's Beijing Olympic Games.
Beijing Olympics multiple gold medal diver Guo Jingjing shot up 24 places to fourth position for her dazzling spins and somersaults as well as her high-profile romance with Kenneth Fok, the grandson of the late Hong Kong tycoon Henry Fok.
Other Olympic stars, such as gymnasts Yang Wei, Zou Kai and Li Xiaopeng, as well as table tennis player Ma Lin, weightlifter Chen Xiexia and diver Wu Minxia, made their debut in the list this year.
"Obviously, more athletes are on this year's list because of the 2008 Olympic Games," said Wei Jizhong, director of the Beijing Olympic Economy Research Association. The Games were held on China's home turf, garnering the country's athletes more spotlight than ever, he said.
China clinched the most number of gold medals in last summer's Olympics with 51 gold in 28 sporting categories, the country's best showing in the Games. More than 4.7 billion people worldwide viewed the Beijing Games, widely seen as the coming out party for the largest developing nation.
"As no more epic sporting events are scheduled this year, there'll be fewer athletes on the Forbes list next year," Wei said.
Liu Xiang, the 110m hurdles gold medalist at the 2004 Athens Games, dropped from his second placing of the past two years to fifth this year. He withdrew from a highly anticipated Beijing Games heats because of injury.
"He has fallen from favor quickly because of his Olympic withdrawal," said Wei, adding that the focus should be on athletes' performance and sportsmanship on the field, not their personal life.
The Forbes China celebrity ranking, which started in 2003, is designed to reflect the social influence of a celebrity in any one year, based on how much estimated income a celebrity makes excluding returns on investment, and how much press, Internet and TV coverage they get.