KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - Standing 2.29 meters (7ft 6in) tall, Yao Ming has never been able to hide in the background. And now, as one of the front men of Beijing’s bid to host the 2022 Winter Olympics, the former NBA star is again the center of attention.
With the International Olympic Committee to vote in Kuala Lumpur on Friday whether to award the games to Beijing or Almaty, Yao has become the public face of China’s campaign and in high demand in the Malaysian capital.
When Yao was in the NBA, he was banned from ever skiing or skating in fear that he might slip over and injure himself but said he had no hesitation in volunteering to join Beijing’s bid team.
“Winter sports is about to take off in China and we have great potential,” he told Reuters in an interview.
“I could show you a bunch of numbers, how many people and how big it will be...but the most important thing is that people have the desire and passion.”
As a pioneer who helped popularize basketball in the world’s most populated country, Yao has first-hand experience of the power of sport.
He competed at three Olympics and carried his country’s flag at the opening ceremony for the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing and said he saw the benefits to his country.
“It really impacted an entire generation, an entire country of people in how to embrace sports and sports activity,” he said.
”It impacted on our soul and the rest of the world and
I believe 2022 will be very similar.”
Despite being rich beyond his dreams, when Yao retired from the NBA in 2011, he returned home and decided to go back to university to finish his degree.
And the 34-year-old has been using his high-profile to draw attention to a range of issues close to his heart, becoming a wildlife activist and supporting campaigns to eradicate the poaching of elephants and rhinos and shark finning.
Rights have been one of the hottest topics in the lead-up to Friday’s vote, where Beijing is the overwhelming favorite to win.
The bid has been undermined by calls from activists not to award China the games, saying the country’s human rights record had worsened since the 2008 Olympics.
“I think for this question, there is no perfect answer for that,” Yao said.
“Even in this world there is no country that can say that they totally have no human rights problems. And just like Rome was not built in one day that problem cannot be solved just like that.”
Yao said he believed hosting the Winter Olympics would have positive effect on China.
”The founding father of the Olympics (Pierre de Coubertin) created a way to bring people together so we can exchange our culture and our knowledge and our vision about this world to create a better world and a better future.
“And I think that is why the Olympics is valuable for this world.”
Editing by Amlan Chakraborty