SINGAPORE: Some of the biggest and richest names in world sport will be at the Beijing Olympics, with the superstar mega-list headed by Roger Federer, Maria Sharapova, Lionel Messi, Yao Ming, LeBron James, and Michael Phelps.
Some will be mucking in with their team-mates at the Olympic Village although others are expected to stay in hotel suites more becoming of their status and financial clout.
While the Olympics will attract more than 10,000 athletes, only a handful can claim to be truly global household names, and even fewer can boost of multi-million dollar bank accounts to boot.
Perhaps the most recognisable face is Federer, the Swiss tennis machine who has dominated the sport for five years. However, in China, home to 1.3 billion people, Houston Rockets centre Yao Ming and 110m hurdler Liu Xiang are bigger.
When it comes to money, the American basketball team carries perhaps the most clout.
Players like James, Kobe Bryant, Carmelo Anthony, and Dwyane Wade are heavyweights of the game who have multi-million dollar salaries and all will be in Beijing.
James, or ‘King James’ as he is known, is one of the richest sportsman on the planet, and, if you believe the reports, is well on his way to becoming the first billionaire athlete.
Once the Cleveland Cavaliers star made it in the NBA, he reportedly bought all of his high school basketball team a new car. And his house just outside Cleveland includes a bowling alley, a barbershop, and casino.
Bryant and his team-mates are equally flush, but it will be about face in Beijing after the Americans suffered the most humbling moment in their basketball history when they lost in the semi-finals in Athens.
It ended their three-Olympics reign as champions and they are desperate to reclaim the mantle.
“We will be Olympic champions this year,” James said.
“We have guys who don’t want to lose – Kobe (Bryant), Carmelo (Anthony), Dwyane (Wade) – and the guys off the bench are very good. We’ve got so many great players.”
Federer has reigned as the number one tennis player since 2004, which makes him not only rich, but a top draw in August.
But he has indicated he will be one of those forgoing the Olympic village.
While the overall experience, including bonding with team-mates from more traditional Olympic sports, is part of the attraction of the Games, being a celebrity means autograph hunters badgering you even among fellow athletes.
Federer doesn’t want distractions in his quest for a first-ever Olympic gold.
“It was quite difficult in Athens,” he said. “Taking the bus and not being in control of my own schedule, and many people recognising me in the village.
“Every time I go to eat everyone taps on your shoulder.”
Maria Sharapova will also be in town, and is certain to be one of the most photographed competitors.
“One of the things I’m really looking forward to is the opening ceremony and walking with athletes from my country in front of thousands of people,” said the Russian, adding that she would love to watch some gymnastics.
“When I was younger I wanted to be a rhythmic gymnast,” she said.
Barcelona’s star striker Lionel Messi, considered by many to be the best young player in the world, will also be in Beijing, barring last minute hiccups.
Many clubs have barred players competing, but Barcelona have little choice. Messi is 21 and clubs are obliged to release players under 23 years of age.
Yao, another from the mega-rich basketball fraternity, is huge in China and is sure to be a major focus of attention.
China’s richest celebrity earned some US$55 million from basketball and sponsorship activities last year alone and is perhaps the most recognisable Chinese face in the world, alongside President Hu Jintao.
Phelps isn’t on the same pay scale although he will reportedly receive US$1 million from Speedo if he matches Mark Spitz’ record of seven swimming golds this summer.
Regardless of his earnings power, Phelps could become the star of the show, with few other athletes in a position to win so many medals.
Another major attraction will be Athens gold medallist Liu Xiang, whose rock-star following in China and sponsorships by Nike, Coca-Cola, Visa and a host of Chinese brands have made him not only rich but very popular.
The world’s fastest sprinters, Usain Bolt, Asafa Powell and Tyson Gay, will also be top draws, with their 100m showdown set to be one of the great moments of the Games.
Channel News Asia