China's Liu Xiang withdraws from Olympics

Hurdler could lose millions in endorsements

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SHANGHAI -- In a major blow to China's hopes for a gold medal in track at the Beijing Games, defending Olympics hurdle champion Liu Xiang withdrew Monday because of a foot injury.

Although reaction from local media has been that of overwhelming support for the 25-year-old hurdler, Liu's quitting is easily the most disappointing news for the Chinese audience so far at the Games, and sponsors are feeling the pinch of Liu's opting out.

An official at GroupM, a WPP company and the largest media buyer for CCTV, said that the company is in talks about changing its ad campaign around Liu. The official, who declined to give her full name, said no details were yet available.

A Coca-Cola China spokeswoman said that the beveragemaker is not changing its current schedule of TV ads with Liu, "But the company will discuss its future ad plans with Liu, and will release the results later."

Visa also said that its current TV ad plan on CCTV will not be changed.

"This is extraordinarily disappointing news for Liu Xiang," said Michael Lynch, head of global sponsorships at Visa. "We have great sympathy for him and wish him a speedy recovery."

Liu may have a longer shelf life than expected, gold medal or no.

"Chinese celebrities and athletes are so charismatic they will have a long life in this market. There could be surprises out of this Games, but international stardom is harder to reach," said Dany Wolf, Gus Van Sant's longtime producer, who also has worked with Hong Kong directors Wong Kar Wai and John Woo on TV commercials in the West.

On Friday, top Hong Kong economist and former Hong Kong University professor Steven N.S. Cheung wrote on his blog that if Liu lost in his hurdles event, it might cost him 1 billion yuan ($145.5 million) over his lifetime.

Hong Kong's TVB said that no sponsors or ad buyers had changed their ad plans following the announcement.

Since winning the gold medal for the 110-meter hurdles at the 2004 Olympics, Liu had won sponsorships from more than 10 international and domestic brands. According to local reports, his most expensive contracts are with Visa, Coca-Cola, Nike and Chinese milk brand Yili, which are all worth more than 20 million yuan ($2.9 million) each.

Karen Chu in Hong Kong contributed to this report.