Leader's love for sports connects with the public

Updated: 2014-02-08 00:48

By Sun Xiaochen (China Daily)

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President's interest in athletics projects 'vibrant national image'

President Xi Jinping's interest — and participation — in sports has helped strengthen his ties with the public while projecting a positive national image for China on the world stage, according to close observers of Xi's personal style.

From a photo displayed in his office that shows him kicking a soccer ball in Ireland to his latest remarks from the Sochi Winter Olympics expressing hope that China will develop into a world sports power, Xi's affection for sports distinguishes him from his predecessors.

In Sochi, Xi met Chinese athletes and encouraged them to deliver their best performances, adding that he expects to see China eventually join the world elite in winter sports, as well as in sports popular around the world such as soccer.

Even before rising to top leadership in China, Xi showed a special interest in the country's sports development. In 2008, when he served as China's vice-president, Xi oversaw the organizing committee of the Beijing Olympics. He has met sports officials and experts on many occasions to hear their suggestions about boosting some of the country's less-developed pastimes — soccer, basketball and volleyball, for instance.

Pundits said Xi's straightforward sports interests have served him well in forging an image as a man of the people in China.

"As the top political leader of the country, Xi's interests in sports, especially popular events, really closes the distance emotionally between him and the people. It showed his approachable style perfectly," said Lu Yuanzhen, a sports sociologist at South China Normal University.

"Involvement in sporting events helped the president to develop a gracious and modest public image, which is in line with his open approach to governance," Lu said.

In February 2012, Xi wrapped up his visit to the United States by watching a live NBA game at the Staples Center in Los Angeles.

Accompanied by Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, Xi watched part of the fourth quarter of a regular-season game between the Los Angeles Lakers and Phoenix Suns before being presented with a jersey with his name on it in front of NBA legend Earvin "Magic" Johnson and soccer star David Beckham.

Xi expressed his enthusiasm for US basketball, saying that he sometimes watches NBA games on television.

Soon after, Xi demonstrated his kicking style on a soccer ball during a visit to Croke Park Stadium in Dublin. It was the second time he had played in public. The first was during a visit to Qinhuangdao, Hebei province, to check on its preparations for the Beijing Olympics.

During a 2011 meeting with Sohn Hak-kyu, chairman of South Korea's Democratic Party, Xi stated three of his wishes: first, that China host the World Cup soccer tournament; second, that the national team qualify for the final stage; and, third, that one day the Chinese team would win the prestigious event.

"Knowing that the president is a diehard fan of soccer — just as we are — makes us feel connected with him," said Wang Wen, chairman of Beijing Football Fan Club. "And his special care boosted confidence that Chinese soccer will rise up in the world."

Acting on Xi's hopes, the Chinese Football Association reelected its leadership board at a national congress last month and released a new 10-year plan to foster a youth foundation and push professional reforms.

A high-profile leader's passion for sports does more than most PR campaigns to market his personal image, said Li Shengxin, a sports public relations expert and associate professor at Beijing Sport University.

"Showing personal interest in sports, especially on big stages such as world diplomacy, is a great way to project a vibrant and healthy image."