Yao Ming, the former basketball star and three-time Olympic athlete for China, played a prominent role in the Olympic Torch Relay that began on Wednesday, February 2, 2022, leading up to the Beijing 2022 Winter Games.
Yao, who represented China in basketball in three Olympic Games from 2000 to 2008, was also China’s flag bearer at the Athens 2004 and Beijing 2008 opening ceremonies. He carried the Olympic Flame into Tiananmen Square as a torchbearer prior to the Beijing Summer Games.
Yao’s success in the NBA with the Houston Rockets also helped put China on the map for basketball. He played for 10 seasons in Houston and was selected to the NBA All-Star team five times. In 2016, he was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame alongside Shaquille O’Neal and Allen Iverson.
Yao began his career with the Shanghai Sharks in 1998 and is credited with almost singlehandedly starting China’s love affair with basketball. China hosted the FIBA World Cup in 2019, and Yao’s memories of the Olympics remain his most cherished. “The Olympics was a dream since I was a kid,” he said. “I was fortunate to have three times of opportunity, not just one. Each one is a very precious memory for me.”
Yao’s parents were also professional basketball players and represented the China national team. Being a flag bearer at two Olympic Games was a great honor for Yao. David Shoemaker, the CEO of NBA China, explained that this solidified Yao’s status as a national treasure and “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 basketball in China. That number has since risen to 300 million. Despite his incredible achievements, Yao remains modest about his legacy. “If there’s no me, there’s another guy that would pop out and lead this wave,” he said.
Since retiring in 2011, Yao has served as a Global Ambassador for the Special Olympics and has worked with the African Wildlife Foundation and WildAid as an ambassador for their “Say No” campaign dedicated to elephant and rhinoceros conservation.