China has a new hero after swimmer Liu Xiang broke the women’s 50m backstroke world record, earning comparisons with the country’s best-known supermodel and confirming her unofficial title of “swimming goddess”.
The 21-year-old was already known among Chinese sports fans, but her feat at the Asian Games on Tuesday has catapulted her to a new level of fame and seen her showered with gushing praise from the media and online.
Liu surged to gold in Indonesia in 26.98 seconds, the first time a woman has broken the 27-second barrier.
Many people on Chinese social media said she bore a strong resemblance to compatriot Liu Wen, one of the world’s highest-paid models.
“Could they be sisters?” pondered one user on Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter.
“Wow, she can break a world record and has such beauty and elegance. What a goddess,” said another.
But the “swimming goddess” title is not one which sits comfortably with Liu.
“I’m not a vase, I’m a world-record holder,” Tencent Sports quoted Liu as saying after she shaved eight-hundredths of a second off countrywoman Zhao Jing’s previous world best, set in 2009.
“I think my looks are ok, but not to an outstanding point. I still value performance and speed more,” Liu told Tencent late last year.
People’s Daily, the mouthpiece of the ruling Communist Party, said it was time to move on from the preoccupation with Liu’s looks.
“Liu Xiang has been famous for a long time, but is known more to the public for her good looks,” it said in an editorial, calling her world-record time “a surprise”.
Before her record-breaking swim, Liu’s performance had been “good but not good enough to make people forget her appearance and remember the results”, the paper said.
“But after this, people will associate her with breaking the world record, not just for being beautiful.”