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China's superstar gymnast kindles Olympic cauldron

Aug. 08, 2008, 12:48 p.m. (ET)

BEIJING (AP) China's first Olympic superstar and now a sportswear mogul, gymnast Li Ning, became the Beijing games' final torchbearer Friday, lighting the Olympic cauldron while suspended by cables in air.

The 44-year-old Li took the torch from volleyball great Sun Jinfang and then pulled by cables, floated above the crowd of 91,000. He ran a victory lap around the National Stadium's lip and then touched the torch to a thin pipe, setting off a spiral of flame to ignite the mammoth, scroll-shaped cauldron.

The choice of Li was emblematic of the stunning changes China and many Chinese have been through in a generation. Li startled the sporting world at the 1984 Los Angeles games, China's first full-fledged Olympics appearance after 30 years of Cold War bickering that kept Beijing away.

Li's feat - taking three gold medals, two silvers and a bronze - announced China's ambition to be a sports powerhouse. Four years later, with four world gymnastics championships behind him and after a fruitless 1988 Seoul Olympics, he retired.

Li became an entrepreneur, founding a sportswear company, Li Ning Co., when private businesses were still largely frowned upon by the communist government.

Meanwhile, China soared from a minor player to the world's fourth-largest economy and a major international power. In sports, its rivaling the United States for the most gold medals at the Beijing games.

Li's company dominated China's sportswear market for much of the 1990s. Though it has been displaced by Nike and Adidas in recent years, the Hong Kong-listed company is worth more than two billion dollars, and Li has become an iconic figure in a growing sports industry.

While trying to recapture market share at home, Li Ning Co. is also trying to go global. It signed its first endorsement deal with an NBA player, Cleveland Cavaliers point guard Damon Jones, in 2006. It also has a deal to sell Shaquille O'Neal's Dunkman shoes in China, and it sponsors the Spanish and Argentine national basketball teams.