BEIJING, July 16 (Xinhua) -- As Yao Ming carried China's national flag into the opening ceremony of 2008 Beijing Olympics Games, he also bore the flag of a new generation of Chinese sports elite who helped to raise the country's profile in the world.
"An athlete's sportsmanship and performance can well be the representative and endorsement of the country," said Liu Peng, as the Chinese sports chief talked to Xinhua about what an athlete could do for the country.
And for China, the 2.26-meter Houston Rockets star, with the combination of strength, height, skills, as well as his global celebrity, is the perfect sport icon to represent the growth and global status of an emerging China.
The Shanghai native joined NBA as the No. 1 overall pick in the 2002 NBA Draft and is about to announce his retirement from the world's top league on July 20.
"There are two reasons for us to choose Yao Ming as the flag-bearer," said Xiao Tian, a vice president of the Chinese Olympic Committee, back in 2004 when the towering center also held the flag of China in the Athens Games.
"First of all, his height can represent Chinese athletes' healthy image. Secondly, his basketball skills and persistence on the court bring him a huge fan base around the world, especially among the youth."
In fact there are more reasons for Yao to be the front man of China. He is an ambassador of the sport, a cultural figure, an enthusiast in charity. And most of all, with his confidence, humor, intelligence and determination, he is a symbol of China's new generation.
Apart from fighting for the glory, an athlete can do a lot for the country.
Back in the 1970s, Chinese table tennis player Zhuang Zedong's friendly greetings and gift to his American peer Glenn Cowan during the 31st World Table Tennis Championship in Nagoya, Japan, triggered the historic "Ping Pong Diplomacy", which led to the ice-breaking visit of U.S. players to China in 1971, paving the way for the development of Sino-U.S. relationship.
Nowadays, China's athletes may not have such chances to bring down diplomatic walls, but sports stars like Yao Ming, Grand Slam titlist Li Na and Olympic hurdler Liu Xiang, with their great personality and prominent sporting performance, are providing a channel for the world to learn about China.
In the old days, Chinese athletes were typically shy and ineloquent. Sometimes they were reluctant to express themselves and in more occasions they were unable to do so due to the language barrier. However, some Chinese stars have already been making the headlines with their fluent English, witty humor and candid off-the-cuff remarks.
China's top tennis player Li Na, who claimed the French Open women's singles title last month, often draws compliments and praise from netizens and the media for her Chinese-style humor.
The 28-year-old is fond of poking fun at her husband, who is also her personal trainer, during her interviews. Once she said: "My husband promised to let me loose with his credit cards if I win (the championship)."
After a hard-won game against Caroline Wozniacki during this year's Australian Open semifinals, Li quipped: "I didn't sleep well last night because my husband was snoring too loudly."
Li's humor can also be seen on her Sina Weibo, a Twitter-like social networking website, as once she wrote: "My husband is so cruel-hearted that he wanted me to run in the hot sun. I had to use my favorite trick - pretending to be asleep."
Like Li Na, Yao Ming also earned a great deal of praise for his humorous and intelligent remarks. In an interview with ESPN, Yao stated that the national anthem of the United States is his favorite song, "for I have to listen to it at least 82 times every year." When queried about his English skill, Yao simply responded "I have learned how to say 'next question'."
"He (Yao) is a joyful, humorous, intelligent and hardworking young man. I enjoy talking to him," praised NBA columnist Frank Bilinboli.
The confidence, wit and humor do not only belong to these Chinese superstars. During the inaugural Youth Olympic Games in Singapore in 2010, China's budding athletes also showed their confidence, vigor, energy and willingness to communicate with the others.
In a cultural activity session of the Chat with Champions, equestrian Xu Zhengyang asked for suggestions from multi-world champion and Olympic gold medalist Sergey Bubka on how to choose between study and sport training, in English.
Jerald Barisano, a commentator for the official broadcasting service during the YOG in Singapore, said he had witnessed the changes in the Chinese athletes in the past 30 years.
"In the 80s, the Chinese athletes kept themselves away from others. But now they are open. They communicate with others," he said.
Maybe in the not far future, these younger generation of Chinese athletes will mature to be the country's leading sports force. And some elite among them will take over the flag from Yao Ming and Li Na and stand as the new symbols of China.