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BEIJING — Sorry, Michael Phelps, but it might take more than eight Olympic gold medals to make you a household name in China.
In a walking survey of a traditional Beijing hutong, a neighborhood made up of narrow streets with carved and painted roof beams, Phelps still lacked some name recognition on Sunday, hours after winning his record eighth Olympic gold medal.
As Phelps got closer to No. 8, he got more live television coverage on China’s state-run CCTV. But, like NBC, it devotes most of its coverage to its own athletes and their remarkable success. Likewise, Chinese sports papers have dedicated 90% of their space to Chinese athletes.
However, the biggest obstacle for Phelps is — well — the name.
When his family name is pronounced in Mandarin, it comes out something like: “Fei-er-pu-si.” Even a perfect rendering by a native speaker can draw blank stares.
Take Wang Zhan, for example.
Sitting on the edge of a small deep-freeze, squarely behind the cash register at his food shop, Wang was asked about Phelps. The name didn’t register, until he was given an added point of reference — an American swimmer.
“Oh yeah, I know the face,” he said. “But the name is hard to remember. To me he looks like a big, strong horse.”
Next door at a foot massage/manicure shop, 19-year-old Shen Chunfang didn’t have a clue. Even prompting her with “swimmer” or “American” wasn’t enough.
“I start work early every day and I don’t watch television,” Shen said, drawing muffled laugher from a few clients and colleagues who knew about Phelps. She smiled shyly.
“I’m sorry, I work too much,” she added.
Instead of trying to pronounce Phelps’ surname with a Chinese inflection, it turned out to be more effective to ask in Chinese about the “handsome American swimmer,” or the “fei yu,” which means “flying fish” and is a nickname Phelps has been given by several local sports newspapers.
“I think Phelps is becoming a big name here quickly, and a famous name is easier to remember even if it’s foreign,” said Shi Shijung, sitting on a stool outside a small fruit market in the Nanluoguxiang neighborhood. “I watched the race and saw him with his mother. They look like a good family.”
Asked to name a few other foreign athletes, Shi replied without hesitating: “Kobe,” then gave a thumbs-up sign.
The “handsome” clue also worked better with Ren Yu, a co-owner of a curio shop called “The Store of Matches,” which specializes in match boxes with designs based on Mao Zedong and the Cultural Revolution.
“No, I really don’t know who he is,” Ren replied.
Her business partner Zhang Quiyu piped up from a few feet away: “You mean the American swimmer?”
Both were then asked if they thought Phelps was handsome.
“Yes,” they replied in unison.
“When he won his first or second medal, he looked so confident,” Zhang said. “He looked like he would win more.”
And he did.
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