Olympics: Yao holds court as Beijing looks good to secure 2022 Winter Games

Retired Chinese professional basketball player Yao Ming (right) and ice hockey player Song Andong (left) pose prior to a Beijing 2022 Olympics bid committee press briefing in Kuala Lumpur on July 29, 2015.
Retired Chinese professional basketball player Yao Ming (right) and ice hockey player Song Andong (left) pose prior to a Beijing 2022 Olympics bid committee press briefing in Kuala Lumpur on July 29, 2015.PHOTO: AFP

KUALA LUMPUR (REUTERS) - Standing 2.29m 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 centre of attention.

With the International Olympic Committee to vote in Kuala Lumpur on Friday whether to award the games to Beijing or Almaty in Kazakhstan, he has become the public face of China's campaign and in high demand in the Malaysian capital.

When Yao was in the National Basketball Association, he was banned from ever skiing or skating in fear that he might slip 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 popularise basketball in the world's most populous 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 favourite 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 are valuable for this world."