Robert F. Bukaty, Associated Press
NBA Houston Rockets basketball team center and Chinese Olympic basketball star Yao Ming is mobbed by fans after running in the Olympic torch relay at Forbidden City, Wednesday.

BEIJING — Yao Ming, the 7-foot-6 Houston Rockets' All-Star and heralded native son of the People's Republic of China, has suggested there are others better suited than he to light the Olympic cauldron tonight.

The lighting of the cauldron has long been one of the signature moments of Olympic opening ceremonies.

The 2008 Beijing Olympics officially open with tonight'sceremonies at the National Stadium, affectionately called "the Bird's Nest."

Yao, China's most globally recognized star athlete who will be competing in his third Olympics, said he was thrilled enough just to carry the torch Wednesday into Tiananmen Square, passing through the Forbidden City's Duan Gate and under the watchful eye of the huge portrait of Chairman Mao Zedong.

During tonight's opening ceremonies, he'll do more than march with his fellow Chinese athletes — he'll lead out the host delegation, having been selected to carry the national flag.

But the cauldron-lighting duties, said the 27-year-old Yao, should go to someone else.

"I've always felt that type of honor should be reserved for the older generations of Chinese sportspersons," he told China Daily, Beijing's English newspaper. "They've stood the test of time and have a deeper sentiment for the Olympics and Chinese sports. I think these people are most suitable for such a historic task."

The torch relay was first introduced to the Olympics at the 1936 Berlin Games, with German runner Fritz Schilgen the final bearer to carry the torch into the stadium and light the cauldron.

Never an Olympic competitor, Schilgen was selected by organizers as "a symbol of German sporting youth" as well as for his graceful running stride.

Norma Enriqueta Basilio de Sotelo was the first woman to light the Olympic cauldron — at the 1968 Mexico City Games. And there have been several multiple cauldron-lighters, including a pair of teenagers at the 1976 Montreal Olympics and a trio of youths at the 1988 Seoul Olympics.

The two Americans who have lit Summer Olympic cauldrons were both former gold-medalists — decathlete Rafer Johnson at the 1984 Los Angeles Games and boxer Muhammad Ali — battling the effects of Parkinson's disease — in a stirring moment of the 1996 Atlanta Games.

Of the 19 individuals who over the years have lit the cauldron to start the Summer Olympics, all but six were athletes from track and field.

If that tradition continues tonight in Beijing, look for Chinese hurdler Liu Xiang as a top candidate to do the honors. Idolized in China after winning a gold medal at the 2004 Athens Games, the world record-holder is two years younger than Yao, going against the latter's suggestion of an older, honored Chinese athlete.

However, Liu's gold-medal effort in Athens made him China's first-ever male track gold medalist.


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