The legacy of two-time Olympic torchbearer and NBA hero Yao Ming

Three-time Olympian Yao is the first Chinese in the NBA Hall of Fame. His contribution was recognised in the Olympic Torch Relay ahead of Beijing 2022

By Liz Byrnes
Picture by BOCOG

Yao Ming was among the first people to carry the flame as the Olympic Torch Relay began on Wednesday (2 February) ahead of Beijing 2022.

Yao represented China in basketball at three Olympic Games from 2000-2008 and was the country's flagbearer in the Opening Ceremony at Athens 2004 and Beijing four years later.

He was also a torchbearer ahead of the Beijing Summer Games, carrying the Olympic Flame into Tiananmen Square.

You could say he also lit the way for his nation in basketball thanks to his exploits in the NBA.

Picked first in the 2002 draft by the Houston Rockets, he played for 10 seasons in Texas and gained five selections to the NBA All-Star team.

In 2016, he was elected to the NBA Hall of Fame, officially the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, with Shaquille O'Neal and Allen Iverson in the same intake.

Having started his career with the credited with the Shanghai Sharks in 1998, Yao almost singlehandedly started China's love affair with basketball with the nation hosting the FIBA World Cup in 2019.

And his memories of the Olympics are the ones that burn brightest.

He told Olympics.com: "The Olympics was a dream since I was a kid. I was fortunate to have three times of opportunity, not just one. Each one is a very precious memory for me.

"We've been told since we were kids that the Olympics was the most valuable and most glorious podium any athlete can dream of."

'National treasure' remains modest despite huge impact on basketball in China

Yao was the only child of two former professional basketball players, father Yao Zhiyuan and mother Fang Fengdi, who also played for the China national team.

Being a flagbearer twice was a great honour for Yao, who said: "I was very, very excited and I felt this stronger connection between me and this nation."

David Shoemaker, the CEO of NBA China, pointed to the impact this had on the consciousness of China.

"I think that solidified his status as a national treasure, that people realised that this was somebody who had not just become a global icon, not just become the greatest professional basketball player from this country that we have ever seen, but somebody who really meant something to every little boy and girl who ever aspired to play sport and ever aspired to be an Olympian."

Before Yao joined the NBA in 2002, 37 million people played or watched the game. That number is now 300 million.

Yao, who stands at 2.29m tall, is modest about his legacy, saying: "I think I was just a lucky guy that appeared at the right time and at the right moment.

"If there's no me, there's another guy that would pop out and lead this wave."

Yao Ming at the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games
Picture by 2008 Getty Images

Yao dedicates himself to Special Olympics and conservation

Since retiring in 2011, the 41-year-old has served as a Global Ambassador for the Special Olympics as well as acting on the International Board of Directors.

He has also worked with the African Wildlife Foundation and WildAid as an ambassador for their “Say No” campaign dedicated to elephant and rhinoceros conservation.

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