Li Ning, the “prince of gymnastics” as he is known in the mainland, is the most famous gymnast in modern China, having won over 100 medals in his 19-year athletic career. Best of the haul are his three gold medals from the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, as well as two silvers and a bronze.
China returned to the Olympics in 1984 after a 30-year boycott, so Li’s triumph was well-publicised. Time Magazine called him, “the face of an emergent China shaking off three decades of sporting isolation”.
Following retirement in 1988, Li then surprised the media by opting for the world of business rather than a coaching career. Li Ning Sports Limited, which sells branded athletic and sportswear products has gone on to flourish, trailing only Nike and Adidas in the domestic market. In 2008, revenues reached $977 million, an increase of 53% year-on-year.
Apart from those medals? More recently, Li proved that he was still capable of athletic prowess when he was hoisted high into the air for a four minute run around the stadium roof of the Bird’s Nest Stadium. It was a spectacular sequence in the Beijing Olympic Opening Ceremony, which culminated in Li igniting the Olympic Flame.
Why is he in the news?
Looking to expand his empire beyond China, Li is paying Russian double Olympic champion pole vaulter Yelena Isinbayeva $1.5 million annually for the next five years to endorse his products. Li has already signed up a crop of American NBA stars including Shaquille O’Neal, Baron Davis, Damon Jones and Jose Calderon.
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