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Guessing can end: Li Ning is final torchbearer

August 8, 2008 |  8:39 am

Former Chinese gymnast Li Ning on his way to light the Olympic Flame during the Opening Ceremony of the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games.

BEIJING -- It's invariably the No. 1 mystery of the opening ceremony: Who will be the final torchbearer?

The most unexpected, and perhaps the best choice ever, was Muhammad Ali in Atlanta in 1996. Who could have guessed that?

A lot of people here thought it might be Yao Ming on Friday night. The Houston Rockets center is, after all, the most famous Chinese athlete in the world.

But after Yao was chosen to carry the Chinese flag in the parade of athletes, that eliminated him from the discussion. He said graciously that he didn't want the honor, believing it should go to an elder athlete, one of China's trailblazers.

In that case, the Chinese couldn't have made a better choice. During the parade, about an hour before the lighting of the cauldron, the organizers quietly announced on the media information center that former gymnast Li Ning would do the honors.

Li was China's most successful athlete in Los Angeles in 1984, the year the country returned to the Summer Olympics after a more than three-decade hiatus. He won three gold medals, two silvers and a bronze. He is now a successful sportswear manufacturer.

One of the final torchbearers was Xu Haifeng, who also competed in Los Angeles. He was a shooter who won the first gold medal of those Games. It was China's first Olympic gold medal ever.

--Randy Harvey

Update: Photo added at 11:50 a.m.

Photo: Former Chinese gymnast Li Ning on his way to light the Olympic Flame during the Opening Ceremony of the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games at the Bird's Nest on Friday. Credit: Kay Nietfeld

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