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Bao's Handsome; Bao's Also Strong
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When Bao Chunlai led the Chinese contingent into the Khalifa Stadium at the opening ceremony of the Doha Asian Games on Friday, his handsome face, shinning smile and slim body elicited cheers from Chinese people and journalists around the world.

"I thought the flag-bearer would be Liu Xiang or someone from the basketball or volleyball team. But when Bao walked into the stadium, I knew we had made the right choice. Whether because of his appearance or his performance in the past year, he was the right person to represent the Chinese delegation," said Liu Yinyu of Worker's Daily.

"Height should not be the sole consideration anymore. It was a good change. Though Bao is also over 190m, he looks handsome and graceful," said Wei Cheng, a Chinese student who stayed up all night to watch the opening ceremony on TV in Beijing, despite the time difference.

A veteran foreign journalist who knows a lot about the Chinese sports scene also said the choice had come as a surprise, though a positive one.

"He's a good-looking guy. China has very good players in volleyball and also in basketball. Some of them are very tall, but he appears more impressive. I took some photos of him," said Gaber A Abideen, a photographer for Al Etihad, a newspaper in Dubai, the United Arab Emirates. Abideen has visited China twice.

Choi Un Leng from Macao Daily was also delighted to see one of the world's best shuttlers bearing the flag.

"I have been covering badminton competitions for years. Bao is always moderate and attractive. I think it was a good idea to have a handsome and healthy-looking guy leading the nation's athletes," she said.

The conventional wisdom leading into the competition was that a basketball player would act as flag-bearer. Due to the absence of Houston Rockets superstar Yao Ming, another centre, Yi Jianlian, was rumoured to be the favourite for the spot.

In the past eight Asian Games, Zhou Chongyu was the only non-basketball player to lead the Chinese contingent. That was during the 1978 Asian Games in Bangkok, Thailand.

All the flag-bearers in China's Asian Games history have been male.

The decision to have Bao lead the Chinese team came as a big surprise to the 23-year-old world No 2.

"It was a great honour. I did not expect to bear the flag before coming to Doha," he said.

Still Bao rejected the idea that his appearance had anything to with the choice.

"I do not think it was because of my face. I think it was out of recognition of my hard work in the past year," he said.

Eyes on Games title

Bao, a low-profile star on the national team, has long lived in the shadow of world No 1 icon Lin Dan.

But the 23-year-old has come on strong this year, clinching a string of victories.

In August, Bao was crowned at the Korea Open after beating such masters as South Korean Lee Hyun Il and Malaysian Roslin Hashim, ending a nearly five-year world title drought in the singles division.

Later, at the Madrid World Championships, Bao defeated Malaysian top player Lee Chong Wei, whom he had never beaten before, in the quarter-finals and then rushed into the final against Lin.

Despite losing to Lin in the final in Madrid, Bao scored revenge in the semi-finals at the China Open in October, his first win since August of 2004.

With his confidence in top form, Bao said he is in good shape and is prepared to face down new challenges.

According to the draw, Bao might lock horns with Indonesian Olympic champion Taufik Hidayat in the quarter-finals, and then challenge world No 2 Lee Chong Wei from Malaysia in the semis.

If he makes it that far, he will likely find himself in a showdown with top-seeded team-mate Lin in the men's singles final on Dec 9.

"I'm really in form," said Bao. "When I learned I might challenge many powerful rivals in the men's singles competition in Doha, I felt nothing special. I have prepared well and am ready to tackle any hardships. "

Bao will enjoy a first-round bye at Asiad and is slated to take on the winner of the match between Ronald Susilo from Singapore and Tarek Shalhoum from Sri Lanka in the second round.

(China Daily December 4, 2006)

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