London 2012 Watch: Liu Xiang Hobbled, Along With Sponsors Including Nike


His one-legged hop from the starting blocks to a wheelchair could have symbolized the marketing campaigns of a handful of major western brands that had put their hopes in Chinese gold medalist hurdler Liu Xiang. For the second straight Games, Athens gold winner Liu failed to even jump the first hurdle in a preliminary round. On the upside, it was about five steps further than his Beijing 2008 performance.

China’s reaction cannot be overstated. Chinese microblog Weibo flooded with millions of posts, ranging from the sympathetic to the cynical — “as expected” went one common comment. A day later, “Liu Xiang” was still the third most popular Weibo topic.

But another thing happened on Weibo following Liu Xiang’s implosion. All of the brands that had invested heavily in him as their sponsor—BMW, Mini, Nike and more—rushed to switch messaging gears. [more]

“As the father of the modern Olympics, Baron Pierre de Coubertin said, the Olympics most important thing is not to win, but to participate; not to have conquered, but to have fought. Liu Xiang achieved it!”

That was the message on Tsingtao Beer’s Weibo just a few hours after Liu’s injury. The star hurdler is the anchor athlete of Tsingtao’s London 2012 campaign.

Mini Cooper China’s message — “Completing my journey, Regardless of position or results” — came with a questionable, if humorous, choice of images: a Mini roadster plowing carelessly through hurdles.

Mini’s reaction was balanced by its parent company’s more adult response, a message about people remembering all that Liu had done for the nation. Liu, coincidentally, is also a spokesman for BMW’s new “Joy” China campaign.

But maybe the brand most invested in Liu is Nike. And his washout has bound to disappoint the home of the swoosh. Nike fashioned a campaign around Liu for Beijing in 2008, only to see him fail to compete (let along medal).

Then Nike doubled down on its bet for 2012, creating a serious, weighty campaign that (now presciently) used lines like “1.3 billion are watching closely.” The campaign tagline: “No need to answer others. Live your Greatness.” The Chinese installment of its epic “Find Your Greatness” London 2012 Olympics “ambush” marketing campaign even features Liu’s own father saying, “We hope he can win.”

Winning was a lost cause when Liu crashed through the first hurdle. But as the old (fallacious) Chinese saying goes, Nike found opportunity in crisis.

“Who dares start all over again in one’s prime, despite the pain…  1.3 billion people all hopped on one foot to the finish. Live Greatness.”

The Weibo message — posted just minutes after Liu’s disaster and only ten minutes after a pre-race viral video post about “eight years of persistence” — was accompanied by a hastily photoshopped image of Liu with a similar message (top). 

This is kind of how it has been for China’s “team Nike” in London. Nike’s Liu mess came just hours after the brand was forced to address the fact that China’s Nike-sponsored basketball team had lost every game it played.

Less than four hours before posting its “Who dares start all over again…” Liu Xiang message, Nike posted a (again prescient) message about China’s basketball team falling out of contention: “Do not let your expectations disappoint. Tomorrow, please continue to pick up the ball. China basketball will never be extinguished.”

That message of hope, posted on Nike’s @JustDoIt Weibo account was in response to @NikeBasketball’s Weibo post:

“We are disappointed because we have expectations. But in five games we see clearly the gap global basketball’s gaps. To close this gap might take a four year effort. But none of it matters. Leave the impatience, put aside discontent, because we have expectations. Because we believe China basketball will never be extinguished. Remember today, let it be the driving force of China basketball.”

@NikeBasketball posted its own photoshopped inspirational poster. It reads “If you fear disappointment, then why have hope? Live your greatness.”

Nike did a heck of a job snatching hope from defeat so compete it’s hard to imagine it being worse. But it’s defeat nonetheless.

The salt in Nike’s wounds is that China is otherwise doing spectacularly in London, trading the medal leads with America. Chinese brand Li-Ning is having a fabulous Olympics. Its Spain-sponsored basketball team is advancing and following a spectacular match that won him the badminton gold, China’s Lin Dan gave a thankful pluck to the Li-Ning logo on his jersey. 

One noteworthy development about the downfall of Liu Xiang is a moderately popular sentiment that Liu’s failure was due to the weight of his sponsorships.

A Weibo post that was forwarded and reposted by Weibo users posited:

“Tencent microblogg forced you to run. Nike forced you to run. Coca-Cola forced you to run. Nutrilite forced you to run. VISA forced you to run, Yili forced you to run. China Post EMS forced you to run, Baisha forced you to run. Aokang forced you to run. Shanshan forced you to run. Cadillac forced you to run. The Bank of Communications forced you to run. Tsingtao Brewery forced you to run… Liu Xiang, you are tired, have a rest.”

Follow more of our London 2012 Olympics coverage