China today picked NBA basketball player Yi Jianlian to carry their flag at the London Olympics opening ceremony, apparently swayed by his towering height.
Deputy chef de mission Xiao Tian repeatedly praised the 2.13-meter Dallas Mavericks power forward for being tall, and stressed impressive physical stature was a necessary requirement for China’s flag-carrier.
Four years ago, fellow basketball giant Yao Ming carried China’s flag at the Beijing Olympics opening ceremony.
Yi is entering his third Olympics after forgettable campaigns in 2004 and 2008, when China finished eighth on each occasion.
The 24-year-old, who lacks the huge appeal of now-retired Yao, has represented four teams in five NBA seasons, without winning the championship. He didn’t start any games in 30 appearances for the Mavericks this year.
China has several other contenders for the flag-carrying honor, including former Olympic champion hurdler Liu Xiang, tennis star Li Na and badminton world number one Lin Dan.
And Xiao admitted ball sports – including basketball – were a weakness for the Chinese team, which topped the medals table with 51 golds four years ago in Beijing.
Asked whether China would ever pick a woman to carry the flag, Xiao said: “It’s possible. As I just said, the flag-bearer has to be someone with a good image and has to be very tall.”
Fellow delegate Cai Jiadong said China, who arrived at the athletes village on Wednesday, would have a “strong presence” at Friday’s ceremony. Some 396 athletes, including 29 gold-medallists, are competing in the Games.
“We feel excited and energetic and we can walk behind a very tall basketball player,” said Xiao. “He’s more than two metres, so everyone can be happy.”