Yao to carry China flag at opening ceremony

BEIJING (Reuters) - Chinese basketball player Yao Ming will carry the host nation’s flag at the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games on Friday, the country’s deputy sports minister said on Thursday.

The 7ft 6in (2.286m) Houston Rockets center, China’s most popular athlete along with Olympic champion hurdler Liu Xiang, also carried his country’s flag at the Athens Games four years ago.

“There were many athletes in our delegation who filled our criteria. After serious consultation we decided on Mr Yao Ming,” Cui Dalin told a news conference.

“Yao Ming is a great athlete. He is a very skilful basketball player, he shows great sportsmanship and he has a good public image.

“We believe Yao Ming can perfectly represent the Chinese athletes.”

Yao, who had to battle back from injury to take part in his home Olympics, had been among the favorites to perform the prestigious task of lighting the cauldron during Friday’s opening ceremony.

The chance of that happening diminished when he carried the Olympic torch for the first time on its journey through Beijing on Wednesday and disappeared with Thursday’s announcement.

Yao remains hugely popular in China in part because he insists on continuing to play for the national team despite his success in the NBA since his move to Houston in 2002.

Playing year-round has not helped protect him from injury though, and he is still recovering from the stress fracture that ended his NBA season prematurely in February.

Despite being only 60 to 70 percent fit, as he confessed earlier this week, Yao is still key to China’s prospects of getting out of their first round group in the Olympic basketball tournament. China’s first game is against the U.S. on Saturday.

The NBA All-Star said in an interview earlier this week that Beijing would be his third and last Olympics.

additional reporting by Liu Zhen and Doug Hamilton; editing by Jeremy Laurence