China’s Olympics Titans and Where They Are Now

7 min read.

In recent decades, China has become a formidable force at the Summer Olympics despite its eleventh hour invitation to the 1952 Helsinki Olympics, where the country participated in just one event: swimming. Now, China takes one of the top spots for the gold medal tally at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics with 38 gold medals, coming in second after the United States (US), which has 39 gold medals thus far.

It goes without saying that China’s meteoric rise at the Olympics would not have been possible without its athletes, all of whom have gone through a strict and gruelling training regime for years, or even decades, in preparation for the Olympics. This article will delve deeper into the success stories and post-Olympics lives of five of China’s greatest Olympians of all time.

1. Deng Yaping (邓亚萍)

Credit: Reuters

Hailed as one of greatest table tennis players of all time, Deng Yaping’s flair for the sport became apparent the moment she first picked up a paddle at the age of five. She won her provincial junior championship four years later, and her first national championship at 13. Despite her early success, Deng Yaping was initially denied a spot on the national team because she was too short. Her talent, however, was not to be overlooked, and she finally made her way into the national team at the age of 15. That year, she won her first international title at the Asian Cup before becoming the youngest Chinese player to ever win a gold medal at the World Table Tennis Championships’ women’s doubles event in the following year. 

Deng Yaping made her Olympic debut in the 1922 Barcelona Olympics, where she brought home gold medals in both the singles and doubles competitions, and defended both titles four years later in Atlanta. Her spectacular career in competitive table tennis ended two years later when she announced her retirement at the age of 25, stepping down with more titles than any other player in history, including 18 World Championships and four Olympics gold medals. Deng Yaping was voted Chinese female athlete of the century, and joined the International Table Tennis Federation Hall of Fame in 2003.

After her retirement, Deng Yaping served on two of the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) commissions – Ethics, Sport and Environment and Athletes Commission. She also became a member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, the country’s top political advisory body, and gained membership in the elite Laureus World Sports Academy. Later, she joined the marketing department of the Beijing Organising Committee and helped to promote the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

Apart from helming several positions in the sporting world, Deng Yaping also continued her education, obtaining a bachelor’s degree from Tsinghua University, one of the country’s most prestigious universities, and a master’s degree from the University of Nottingham. She proceeded to earn a PhD in Land Economy at the University of Cambridge (Jesus College).

2. Li Ning (李宁)

Credit: Li Ning

Li Ning became one of China’s first sporting superstars for his excellent gymnastics career, which includes his amazing gymnastics performance at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. Being a gymnast from eight-years-old, Li Ning joined the Chinese national team in 1980, and earned the title of “Prince of Gymnastics” just two years later, after he won six of seven medals at the Gymnastics World Cup. His Olympics debut in 1984 coincided with China’s first Olympic Games after a 32 years hiatus, where he dominated the men’s gymnastics events, taking home six medals, including three golds, two silvers and one bronze.

Li Ning retired from competition after performing poorly due to an ankle injury at the 1988 Seoul Olympics. He joined the Jianlibao Group as a general manager subsequently, which was at the time China’s most famous sports drink brand. This was where he met Li Jianwei, then CEO of Jianlibao Group, who helped Li Ning kickstart his own sportswear brand Li-Ning.

As the chairman of Li-Ning, Li Ning was able to leverage his personal reputation in China to maintain good relationships and connections with sports officials, as well as to promote his brand locally. The company began to provide uniforms for the National Games regularly, and Li-Ning products were selected to be official sporting goods for the Chinese delegation in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. Through sponsorships of large sporting events and well-known Chinese athletes, the Li-Ning brand began to penetrate the Chinese consumer market. Most notably, Li Ning won a bid to award his company with brand rights for the 11th Asian Games in Beijing, where he conveyed to the States Sports Commission the pain he felt in wearing foreign brands as a Chinese Olympic champion.

As a result, the Li-Ning brand took off in China, boosted by the publicity of the Asian Games and a strong rural consumer base. Its founder’s backstory also allowed the brand to be closely associated with national pride. As a result, Li-Ning’s new sportswear collections became staples of ‘guochao’, a new movement characterized by a strong sense of pride for things “made in China”. The movement has gained steam in recent years, with local brands like Li-Ning skyrocketing in popularity among Chinese consumers.

3. Lin Dan (林丹)

Credit: AFP

Lin Dan is no doubt a pioneer for the modern era of Chinese sports stars. With a movie star-like personality to complement his sporting success, he often made the headlines in sports pages for his stellar performance on the badminton court, while being concurrently featured in gossip columns for his happy-go-lucky lifestyle.

A year after starting his professional badminton career, Lin Dan clinched two gold medals in the singles at the 2002 Korea Open, marking the first two of 66 titles he would eventually claim over his two-decade career, including six All England titles and five World Championships. He has since earned titles such as “The King of Badminton” and “Super Dan” for his stellar track record. Most notably, Lin Dan became the first ever athlete to complete the ‘Super Grand Slam’, which involves securing the top spot across nine of the world’s biggest badminton tournaments.

Lin Dan announced his retirement in July 2020, citing his deteriorating physical fitness as the major reason behind his departure from the sport. He finished his career as one of the most accomplished badminton players in history with a record of 666 wins to only 128 losses. In his definitive rivalry with Malaysian Lee Chong Wei, Lin Dan secured 28 wins out of 40 matches across a 12-year period, as compared to Lee Chong Wei’s 12.

Upon retirement, many speculated that Lin Dan will transition into the entertainment industry, where he would likely excel with his movie star-like personality. Already, he has appeared on popular variety shows such as “Tucao Conference (吐槽大会)”, and “Masked Singing (蒙面唱将猜猜猜)”, sometimes alongside other athletes who were also on the brink of retirement.

4. Lang Ping (郎平)

Credit: VCG

Lang Ping was among the first sporting icons in China, after helping the China women’s national volleyball team win the gold medal at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, the first Olympics gold medal China has ever won in volleyball. During the same period, the Chinese national team also won several times during the World Championship, as well as the World Cup in 1981 and 1985. Lang Ping’s success as a star spiker in the national team allowed her to command the utmost respect from Chinese fans and anyone else following volleyball in China, and she also received the title of Chinese Top Ten Athletes Of The Year from 1981 to 1986.

Although Lang Ping’s reputation as one of the first world champions in Chinese volleyball history will always remain, she later also earned her name as an invaluable coach of the China women’s national volleyball team. As head coach, Lang Ping guided the team to clinch the silver medal at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics and second place at the 1998 World Championship. She also achieved two gold medals as a coach at the 2008 Beijing Olympics and 2016 Rio Olympics, though interestingly, she represented two different teams.

This crossroads came after Lang Ping resigned from the Chinese national team in 1998 due to health reasons, following which she re-emerged in the volleyball scene as a coach of the US national team. She led the team in securing the gold medal at the 2008 Beijing Olympics after a face-off with the team from her own country. After her stint with the American team, however, Lang Ping returned as the head coach of the Chinese national team for the second time in 2013, and brought the team to victory in the 2015 World Cup. The team proceeded to clinch the top position at the 2016 Rio Olympics under Lang Ping’s guidance, allowing her to become the first person to have won volleyball gold both as a player and a coach. 

Unfortunately, the China women’s national volleyball team failed to defend their title at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. The team’s underachieving performance placed them at ninth-place, their worst result at the Olympics since winning the title in 1984. Lang Ping has since announced her decision to retire as the team’s head coach, saying that it is time for a younger coach to take the reins, and that she wants to spend more time with family.

5. Liu Xiang (刘翔)

Credit: Getty Images

Liu Xiang’s one and only gold medal at the Olympics marks one of most significant triumphs in China’s modern sporting history. Securing the gold medal in the 110m hurdles at the 2004 Athens Olympics in a record-equalling time of 12.91 seconds, the then 21-year-old scored the country’s first gold in a major men’s track and field event since they returned to the Olympic fold in 1984. 

After clinching the top spot at the World Championships in 2007, Liu Xiang became the first 110m hurdler to boast the triple crown of world champion, Olympic champion and world record-holder. He proceeded to win the World Indoor Championships in 2008, as well as three straight gold medals at the Asian Games from 2002 to 2010.

Liu Xiang’s Olympics career came to an end after he was forced to pull out of the 2008 Beijing Olympics because of a false start and injury. Subsequently, an injured Achilles tendon during the heats prevented him from competing in the 2012 London Olympics as well. 

Liu Xiang retired in 2015 as one of China’s greatest Olympians of all time. He has also become an inspiration and role model to the younger generation of Chinese athletes, including sprinter Su Bingtian, who recently set the Asian record of 9.83s for the 100m run at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Su Bingtian dedicated his emotional 100m final run at the competition to Liu Xiang, whom he described to be a trailblazer for the Chinese track and field team, and his personal idol.

Since his retirement, Liu Xiang has participated in a number of reality television shows such as “Sports Meeting (青春运动会)” and “The Amazing Race China 3 (极速前进第三季)”, during which he occasionally demonstrated his hurdling skills. However, the track and field star has mostly maintained a low-key life post-retirement, spending time with his family and gradually fading from the public eye.