August 26, 2008 11:04 AM
Liu Xiang = The U.S. Men's Soccer Team?I've been trying to figure out a proper American equivalent for Liu Xiang for a few weeks now, and it's been tough. He's one of the most marketable athletes in the world. He won China's first track & field gold medal. In the process, Chinese feel that he shattered the stereotype that they cannot compete in any sprint-type event. Chinese regard him as a symbol of progress here, perhaps even a symbol of China's future as a superpower in many new, diverse regions of economics and politics.
There is a team in America's past that I do feel brings out a similar sense of nationalism among Americans: the 1980 Miracle on Ice squad. Had that team lived in today's world, Nike would have had them in "Just Do It" ads immediately. They'd have sold commemorative skates and star spangled jerseys in their stores.
But Nike wasn't advertising like that back in 1980. Still, there is one team that -- if they won a major international competition -- could be the Chinese equivalent of Liu Xiang.
I'm talking about the U.S. men's soccer team.
If -- and, yes, this is a big if -- the U.S. men's team was to win the World Cup, it would be an enormous triumph for Americans. The U.S. team has never been regarded as a powerhouse; the sport isn't among the top four most popular in the States. So a championship would certainly shatter the notion that Americans are only good at team sports like basketball or football. It would bring instant credibility to the sport, which is already played by millions of youths around the country. It would be a historic moment in U.S. sport.
Liu Xiang faced similar conditions. The Chinese had never won gold in any track event. The sport is behind other Chinese favorites, like basketball, badminton, gymnastics or soccer. Now, it's growing in popularity, and the Chinese consider Liu Xiang to be a legend, despite his decision not to run in these Olympics.
A U.S. win would be seen by millions both domestically and abroad. Soccer doesn't get great ratings in the States, but the World Cup draws big numbers. So did the the 2004 Olympics, where Liu Xiang won gold.
In terms of marketing, the opportunity would be practically unprecedented in the States. Nike's the sponsor of the men's team, and the players would become instant celebrities. Soccer TV ads are already visually stunning; insert Americans instead of European stars into those ads, and imagine the potential for Nike.
After he won gold, Liu Xiang started endorsing everything, and his commercials inspired new track programs all across China.
It's not an exact comparison, though. Liu Xiang's victory was viewed here as a major triumph for an entire race of Chinese people. But the U.S. team is racially and culturally diverse. There is no such stereotype that Americans -- due to our genetic makeup as Americans -- are unable to play soccer at a high level.
That aside, there's still one major obstacle for the U.S. soccer team to becoming the American version of Liu Xiang: they still have to win a major competition first.
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