I was surprised to hear that Li Ning was the final torch bearer at Beijing’s opening ceremonies. That’s him flying through the air, photographed by Xinhua. That Li should be the choice makes sense: after staying away from the Olympics for decades, China returned in 1984; then-19-year-old Li Ning left L.A. with six medals in gymnastics, three of them gold. So there is some national significance to Li’s selection.
Li is now an incredibly successful businessman, owner of a sports apparel and accessory company that does a brisk business in China. His company is called Li Ning.
I own a Li Ning shoulder bag, bought almost exactly one year ago at one of the company’s stores on the third floor of a mall in Benxi City, Liaoning. The store’s columns were wrapped with life-sized posters of Shaquille O’Neal, appropriately branded. It’s a durable bag. I didn’t realize that it was such a recognizable brand until, one day in San Francisco, a Chinese emigre lifted up my bag and announced, “Li Ning.”
Li Ning. If you visit the company’s English-language web site, there is no mention of the Olympics. If you visit the company’s other English-language web site, there is some mention of the Olympics. Oh, Mr. Li and his executives must have desperately wanted their company to be an official sponsor of the Beijing Olympics, but lost out to Adidas. But Li Ning is no slouch, and the company is outfitting a number of teams, starting with the Swedish, and including the American ping pong team. He’s also got CCTV-5’s sportscasters. Li Ning’s continued presence, corporal and corporate, will, presumably, be noted.
So the more cynical side of me registered some surprise at Li Ning’s moment in the spotlight. Offend the advertisers and sponsors? But the takeaway seems to be that there are still some things money can’t buy, and Beijing’s organizers put national pride before commercial imperatives. Classic. And reassuring, so long as national pride does not transform into a nationalist imperative. This is China.