BEIJING (Reuters) - Li Ning, who lit the cauldron at the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics after a daredevil highwire act, earned the nickname “Prince of Gymnastics” and won three gold medals before finding success in business.
Through his achievements in the two fields, Li represents the strength of China’s Soviet-style sports system as well as the entrepreneurship and wealth of the country’s new capitalism.
On Friday night, the 44-year-old was lifted high above the 91,000 spectators in Beijing’s Birds Nest stadium, suspended from wires. He circled above their heads, simulating a runner racing around a track in slow motion, before igniting the cauldron with a streak of flame.
He won the most medals of any athlete at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, returning home from China’s first participation in a Summer Games for 32 years with three golds, two silvers and a bronze.
He retired after failing to win a medal at the Seoul Olympics in 1988 but was not idle for long, founding the sportswear company that bears his name. He put 20 million shares in the company up for sale earlier this year for around $50 million.
Li was born in the southern region of Guangxi and is a member of one of China’s 55 ethnic minorities, the Zhuang.
He took up gymnastics at the age of seven and soon found his way into the national sports system, joining the national team at the age of 17.
Having been deprived of a shot at Olympic glory at the Moscow Olympics by China’s decision to join the boycott over the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Li shot to fame at the 1982 World Cup in Zagreb.
Claiming the men’s all around title with an average score of 9.9, he also won gold in five of the other six events. The only event he failed to win was the parallel bars, in which he snared a bronze.
Over his career, he won 13 major individual titles at international level and one team gold at the 1983 world championships. He joined the International Gymnastics Hall of Fame in 2000 and was named China’s male athlete of the 20th century.
After retiring, he became an international gymnastics judge and earned a law degree from the prestigious Peking University. He also holds an MBA from the same institution.
The company he founded, China’s first national sports goods brand, has around 10 percent of the Chinese market and has also been involved in some controversy.
The brand’s logo is similar to the Nike swoosh, although the company says it represents Li Ning’s initials and his dynamism on gymnastics apparatus.
It was also accused of ambush marketing when, despite not having paid out to sponsor the Beijing Games, it struck a deal that resulted in staff on state broadcaster CCTV wearing the company’s logo during Olympic broadcasts.
Additional reporting by Liu Zhen, editing by Keith Weir and Alex Richardson