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Li, China Fly High at Opening Ceremonies
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"Jet Li" - Gymnastics legend Li Ning lights the cauldron Friday evening during the Opening Ceremonies at the Olympics in Beijing.

In the end, it was Li.

In a spectacular finale to the Opening Ceremonies of the 2008 Olympic Games, sporting and business pioneer Li Ning took to the skies and lit the Olympic cauldron Friday night as the 29th Olympiad began in Beijing.

Nearly four hours after the lavish ceremonies began, Li appeared and took the flame from a chain of celebrity compatriots, among them 1996 Olympic all-around champion Li Xiaoshuang.

The 44-year-old Li Ning was hoisted then into the air, hundreds of feet above the National Stadium packed with nearly 100,000 athletes, spectators and world dignitaries. Running through the sky, Li circled the stadium in an homage to the thousands of miles the Olympic flame has traveled on its way from Olympus to Beijing, before finally lighting the cauldron.

There had been speculation for some time that it could be Li who lit the cauldron, a task the Olympic host nation typically reserves for its most cherished of sporting icons. Li certainly fits the bill as the face of the new China that has welcomed the world this summer.

Li was the first of many Chinese gymnastics greats to dominate his competition. In 1982, three years after China made its return to international sporting competition, Li won six of seven available golds at the World Cup in Zagreb.

He earned six medals, including three golds, at the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles. He retired after the 1988 Olympics in Seoul.

In 1990 Li founded Li-Ning Company Limited, which has grown into one of the largest sportswear companies in the world. With more than 4,000 retail stores, Li-Ning is a major competitor to Nike and adidas in some markets.

Li was inducted into the International Gymnastics Hall of Fame in 2000.

China is hoping for a record performance at these Olympics, the first ever in China and the first Summer Games in Asia in 20 years.

The appearance of Li was an auspicious moment in particular for the Chinese gymnastics team, which is expecting a record medal haul in Beijing. Competition begins Saturday at noon with the men's qualification.

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