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Left: China's Sun Yang reacts after winning gold in the men's 1,500m freestyle at the London Olympics. Right: Sun performs during a New Year's celebration at Jiangsu TV on Dec 31. Sun has been suspended from commercial activities after breaching team rules, and it's uncertain whether he'll continue to work with his coach of 10 years. "Everyone is equal when it comes to the rules," said Li Jianshe, president of Zhejiang College of Sports. Provided to China Daily
Controversial events outside of pool put swimmer at odds with coach, college
He may boast superb international athletic credentials like famous compatriots Yao Ming and Li Na, but China's Olympic swimming star Sun Yang has much to learn about managing himself outside of competition.
After claiming two gold medals at the London Olympics, Sun became the new face of Chinese sports and garnered huge sponsorship interest through his good looks and strong personality.
However, a series of incidents, including a recent quarrel with his long-time coach and the violation of provincial team rules, have damaged his image and put a dent in his commercial prospects.
With no professional agency taking care of his out-of-pool affairs, Sun needs to better manage himself while maintaining smooth communication with the governing body to avoid more controversy, a Chinese PR expert said.
"He is not allowed to hire a crew like Yao and Li did due to the swimming authority's regulations, and that makes him a unique case," Bi Xuemei, professor of sports PR and communication at Beijing Sport University, told China Daily on Tuesday.
"The lack of an agent could be blamed for the debates and misunderstandings since his London victory, but what he needs to learn is to properly manage the demands on him."
Sun captured national headlines earlier this month when his romantic relationship with a flight attendant became public. He attracted further unwanted attention this week when he was punished by the Zhejiang College of Sports, with which he is affiliated, for breaking the rules of the provincial team.
Citing a lack of discipline, including a sleepover outside of the camp, the college announced on Monday it was withholding a month of Sun's stipend and suspending him from taking part in any commercial activities.
"Anyone who violates the rules should be punished ... everyone is equal when it comes to the rules," Li Jianshe, the president of the college, told China Daily.
Li said Sun realized his mistakes and accepted the penalty and also said he thinks the 22-year-old is unlikely to split with Zhu Zhigen, who has coached him for 10 years.
"They've been working together for a decade," Li said. "I don't think their relationship will be ruined just because of an impulsive quarrel."
Concerned too many commercial activities were taking a toll on Sun's training, Zhu also voiced his disapproval of the budding romance, claiming he was concerned that Sun would struggle to balance training with dating at such a young age.
Zhu tried to persuade him to spend more time in the pool during a training session last week but met fierce resistance from Sun, who reportedly went to the college's hierarchy and asked for a new coach.
Although Sun has admitted the dispute was his fault, the sides have failed to reach an agreement on whether they will continue to work together.
Sun's scheduled overseas training stint in Australia is also in jeopardy. He was supposed to fly Down Under with Zhu to practice at renowned coach Denis Cotterell's local club in Queensland after the Spring Festival.
"It's highly likely Zhu will still travel with the other swimmers to Australia, but whether Sun remains on the list has yet to be decided,"said Lu Lin, deputy director of the Zhejiang provincial sports bureau.
Banned from any new endorsement deals in the near future, Sun's commercial value is likely to take a hit, and there appears to be little public support for the champion freestyler.
According to a sina.com poll, more than 68 percent of respondents (17,908 votes) backed the move to curb his commercial ventures, "otherwise his competitive level will be affected".
According to a Swimming World report, Sun's endorsement income will reach about $20 million this year through major contracts with Coca-Cola, sportswear brand 361 Degrees, dairy product manufacturer Yili and motor company Hyundai.
However, a damaged public image could affect his marketability.
"It will have some negative impact for sure," Bi said. "Potential sponsors will reconsider their decisions (to sign him) after he has been involved in so many incidents."
(China Daily 02/06/2013 page24)