Li Ning was eight years old when Chinese sports officials came to his city to audition athletes. Though he was an untrained gymnast, the officials saw something in his determination and encouraged him to keep practicing.
Nine years later, in 1980, he was selected to the national team. In 1982, he won six medals at the World Cup Gymnastic Competition and became China’s “Prince of Gymnastics.”
After returning from the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, where he’d won six medals, he’d become “the golden child” in China. And he tried to leverage that fame by starting his company. “He had to compete wearing foreign brands,” says Jay Li, general manager of Li-Ning Intl. “He wanted to create a Chinese brand for Chinese athletes.”
But the private endeavor was regarded by some as heretical in the Communist country. Then China went through a series of economic reforms and individual entrepreneurship became more acceptable.
“He saw an opportunity to build a brand based on Chinese pride,” says Jeremy Kaye of Ziba Design (Portland, Ore.). “He has a strong notion of what it means to be a Chinese sportsman.”