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Yao carrying China flag at Olympics opener: Again

Aug. 07, 2008, 9:36 a.m. (ET)

BEIJING (AP) Olympic hosts China have selected Houston Rockets star Yao Ming to be their flag bearer at the opening ceremony for the second time.

Yao first carried the flag at the 2004 Games in Athens. As China's highest profile athlete, he had long been a front runner to receive the honor again.

"The criteria ... is that the bearer should be a skilled sportsman, with excellent sporting ethics and a positive public image," China's deputy chef de mission Cui Dalin said at a news conference on Thursday.

"There are many in the Chinese delegation who fill the bill. What to do? After careful consideration, the delegation decided that the flag bearer for the Chinese delegation should be Yao Ming," Cui said.

Since his NBA debut in 2002, Yao has loyally returned for national team duties, anchoring the team in major tournaments and leading China to eighth in the 2004 Olympics. That's helped make him a household name in his homeland, earning him millions of dollars annually in endorsements. Yao also established a foundation to rebuild schools following May's devastating earthquake Sichuan province.

Exempted as hosts from qualifying, China is fielding its largest ever Olympic team; 639 athletes competing in all 28 sports. The team is slightly older than that of four years ago, with an average age of 24.4. Among them, 73 percent are first-time Olympians, while 165 competed previously in Athens and 37 in Sydney.

Three athletes: 10 meter diving champion Guo Jingjing; shooter Tan Zongliang; and men's basketball veteran Li Nan; are three-time Olympians.

While Chinese athletes hope to top the medal tallies for the first time, Cui said organizers had never set a target, although he noted steady improvements in their results.