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China's flag bearer? Yao is a big favorite

updated: 2008-08-07

Days of speculation reached a frenzy Wednesday when rumors began swirling that basketball star Yao Ming had been selected to carry China's flag during the Opening Ceremony of the Beijing Olympic Games.

"Of course I want to be the flag bearer again," said Yao, who carried the flag four years ago in Athens, when told of the rumor. "I have experience. It feels good."

The rumor was impossible to confirm, but if Yao does end up being China's flag bearer he would continue in an established tradition. Since 1984, China has assigned the flag-bearing honor to men's basketball players like Wang Libin (1984), Song Tao (1988), Song Li (1992), Liu Yudong (1996 and 2000) and Yao (2004).

Yao has long been considered the most likely candidate this year due to his international fame and impressive height (2.26m). Yao's teammate Yi Jianlian, another NBA player, is also considered a strong contender for the honor.

Last week, Olympic and world 110m hurdle champion Liu Xiang ruled himself out, saying he would not be attending the Opening Ceremony at the Bird's Nest.

"I won't go to the stadium to watch the Opening Ceremony but I will watch the live broadcast on TV," Liu said during a break in training. "The TV broadcast is as good as the live show and what's more, I can listen to the commentary."

China, a badminton powerhouse, also may choose men's singles player Bao Chunlai. The tall and handsome young man is hugely popular among female fans and he already carried the flag at the 2006 Asian Games in Doha.

Because China's women's athletes have been more successful than the men in many events, it may be a woman who carries the flag this time in Beijing.

At the 2006 Turino Winter Games, Olympic short-track skating champion Yang Yang was the first and only woman to lead the Chinese squad at an Opening Ceremony.

According to some online surveys, ace spiker Zhao Ruirui, diving star Guo Jingjing and table tennis player Zhang Yining are all among the hot female favorites.

We will learn the final answer today.

Stars lead squads

The main rule guiding most Olympic teams when choosing a flag bearer is to choose either the best or the most unique athlete.

Tennis star Roger Federer, for example, is the undisputed choice for Switzerland. He set a record for holding the world No 1 ranking for a record 238 consecutive weeks and has won 12 Grand Slam singles titles. Federer, who will be celebrating his 27th birthday on the day of the ceremony, also led his country at the opening of the Athens Olympics four years ago.

"It's wonderful that I can carry the flag for the Swiss delegation on my birthday," Federer said in a Swiss Olympic statement.

"It's well known that I still have a score to settle with the Olympics and being handed this honor for a second time will give me extra motivation."

Federer went into the Athens Games as a hot gold-medal favorite but was upset by Czech Republic's Tomas Berdych early in the tournament. This summer he and his Spanish archrival Rafael Nadal will both fight for their first Olympic titles.

Adam van Koeverden, the reigning Olympic and world champion in the 500m kayak singles, was chosen to be Canada's flag barer for the Beijing Olympics.

He beat out a list of candidates that included Olympic medal-winning diver Alexandre Despatie, nine-time Olympian equestrian rider Ian Millar, and gymnast Kyle Shewfelt, who recovered from two broken legs to make the team for Beijing.

Water-sport-strong Australia selected triple Olympic winning rower James Tomkins to carry its flag.

After winning last year's European championship in Spain, sporting powerhouse Russia named basketball forward Andrei Kirilenko its flag-bearer. The 27-year-old forward plays for the NBA's Utah Jazz and is one of his country's most prominent global athletes.

Another three basketball stars will join Kirilenko as flag bearers for their teams: Sarunas Jasikevicius from Lithuanian, Dirk Nowitzki from Germany and Argentina's Manu Ginobili are all scheduled to carry their national banners in Beijing.

Girl power

To pay tribute to China's most popular sport, three women's table tennis players will carry the flags for their countries.

Li Jia Wei, the Beijing-born paddler, will carry Singapore's flag (and try to help it win its first Olympic medal in nearly 50 years). As will Fukuhara Ai, the most popular Japanese player in China, will hoist Japan's. Jordan has also named women's table tennis player Zeina Shaban as its flag bearer.

Maitha bint Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the daughter of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktroum, will represent United Arab Emirates in taekwondo 67kg category and will carry her country's flag.

And Mexico chose diver Paola Espinosa Snchez, one of Mexico's most famous athletes, to lead the Olympic squad bearing the flag.