Want to carry the Chinese flag into the Opening Ceremony? Better be ‘tall, handsome and influential’

We're just three days away from the Opening Ceremony of the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, and the Chinese Olympic delegation has yet to reveal which of the 380 athletes who will represent the nation in 23 different events will be the lucky one chosen to carry the Chinese flag in Friday's gala opening parade. Thanks to a hint offered by one Chinese official, though, we know one thing — short stacks need not apply for the honor.

From Xinhua's Zhang Yongfeng:

"You will get a pleasant surprise when the name of the flag-bearer is announced soon," Xiao Tian, deputy chef de mission of the Chinese Olympic delegation, said at Beijing International Airport while leading a team of Chinese officials to leave for London. [...]

There has been a lot of guessing about who will carry the Chinese flag in London. Dallas Mavericks player Yi Jianlian, 2011 French Open women's singles winner Li Na, 2004 Olympic champion hurdler Liu Xiang, Olympic badminton champion Lin Dan and world champion swimmer Sun Yang are among the candidates for the flag-bearer.

"The flag-bearer should well represent the image of China," said Xiao. "He or she needs to have an impressive record in sports, be tall, handsome and influential."

As the Xinhua report notes, the "tall" requirement likely rules out Li Na (who is just under 5-foot-8) and Lin Dan (5-foot-10). Whether the 6-foot-2 Liu Xiang is tall enough to get on the ride remains to be seen, but he skipped the opening festivities in Beijing in 2008 and "may be spared the parade in London," according to Reuters, so he might not be the surest bet.

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Yi is certainly big enough at nearly 7-feet tall, but an, um, undistinguished NBA career that saw him go from sixth overall pick in the 2007 NBA draft to little-used bench player in just five years could mean he runs afoul of that "impressive record in sports" criterion. Plus, Yi would pale in comparison to Chinese basketball star Yao Ming, who bore the flag when China served as the host nation for the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing — downgrading from "greatest basketball player in our nation's history" to "widely acknowledged bust" seems kind of weird, optics-wise.

All this could mean that Sun Yang makes the most sense. The 20-year-old swimmer stands 6-foot-6, finished eighth in the 1,500-meter freestyle in Beijing at just 16 years old and now holds the world record in that event, breaking Australian Grant Hackett's decade-old 1,500-meter mark at the 2011 FINA World Championships in Shanghai last July. A young rising star in a sport in which China has not been a traditional power, who also happens to be big and easy on the eyes? Sure seems to fit Xiao's bill.

While the choice of Yang would present an image of a new China, competing and presenting world-class contenders in new areas, it would to some degree give short shrift to great athletes in sports that have traditionally been Chinese strong points.

[ Photos: Flag bearers from around the world ]

According to historical medal counts available at DatabaseOlympics.com, China's best events have included diving, gymnastics, shooting, table tennis and weightlifting. And in several of those events, the Chinese squad will feature strong gold-medal contenders ranked among the world's best in their respective sports, like reigning FINA Male Diver of the Year Qiu Bo; the dominant table tennis trio of Zhang Jike, Wang Hao and Ma Long; and a men's gymnastics team coming off gold-medal performances in both Beijing and the 2011 world championships in Tokyo, among others. Turning focus away from traditional strong suits in which your team will field representatively contending competitors and teams just because those competitors are not very tall seems like kind of an odd choice.

Then again, maybe Xiao and his colleagues are just trying to more closely align the Chinese national team's goals with those Liz Phair promoted in 1998. That seems like just as reasonable a strat now as it did then.

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