Li Ning Today

By Xiao Hong

China Sports, 1992   On December 16, 1988, Li Ning, China's "prince of gymnastics" announced his retirement from competitive sports.  With 106 medals to his credit, including six golds from the Sixth Gymnastics World Cup, the 25-year-old Li suddenly found himself in the real world.  He was faced with a question all retiring athletes confront: what next?

Unlike some retirees, however, Li's options were numerous.  The State Physical Culture and Sports Commission (SPCSC) offered him a coaching position on the national team, several units in his home province of Guangxi wanted him as a leader, and a number of foreign countries invited him to be a high-salaried coach...

Despite the attractive offers, he turned them all down.  After careful consideration, he decided to focus his energies on business and joined the Jianlibao Group in Guangdong Province.

Li Ning's decision made a big splash at home and abroad.  Surprised by headlines like "Yesterday's Prince of Gymnastics Joins Guangdong Jianlibao Group" and "Li Ning Appointed Special Assistant to Jianlibao General Manager", many doubted Li's business skills.  The actions of Li Jingwei, Jianlibao's general manager, in hiring the inexperienced Li Ning were deemed a poor business judgement.

People could not then know Li's rock solid determination to succeed in his adopted profession.

According to Li, what he remembers most clearly about his 17-year sports career are not his brilliant achievements but his failure at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul.  At his last major world tournament, he felt very strongly that he failed his people.  For this he felt deep regret.

Yet, only three months after his Olympic failure, thousands of gymnastics fans turned out for Li's retirement party to express their appreciation for all he had done.  The outpouring of support for the retiring star helped him put his past successes and failures in perspective.  Instead of an end, his retirement party became a new beginning.  It helped him step out in a new direction with confidence.

Li's original plan for retirement was not business.  He had long expressed his wish to set up a gymnastics school and help train China's future gymnastics stars.  Yet, without money, his gymnastics school would remain a dream.  He thus chose to earn money first and return to the dream later.

To erase people's doubts about his commitment to his new career and to strengthen his own resolve, Li decided to settle his parents in remote Sanshui County, home to Jianlibao.  Since then, the Lis have called the small county with a population of less than 50,000 home.

At the beginning Li received a lot of pointers from Jianlibao experts, including general manager LI Jingwei.  In addition to learning management and administration and other commercial knowledge, he also worked hard to promote Jianlibao sports drinks.

The happiest moment of Li's short business career came when a long-cherished wish -- to produce a line of athletic wear -- was realized in 1990.  The 1990 Beijing Asiad provided the ideal opportunity for him to expand into the clothing market.

In early 1989, his athletic wear concept was still in embryonic form; he had no workshop or trade mark.  But about that time, companies from around Asia began vying for the right to sponsor the Asian Games.  A representative of a South Korean sportswear manufacturer offered four million US dollars (roughly 23 million yuan) for the privilege of providing uniforms for the Games' torch relay.

Li was eager to join the fray and test his luck against larger competitors.  Many of Li's rivals were well established and enjoyed high name recognition in the Chinese market.  A brand new line of clothes was unlikely to be a match for them.  What then was to be done?  Li decided to name his athletic wear after himself.  His reasoning was simple -- his fame would lend instant credibility to his product.

It was a bold decision.  Naming products after people is common abroad.  But in China, to put one's name of a trade mark means putting one's reputation on the line.  If the product flops, the person shares equally the disgrace.

Li was not without misgivings.  He worried that his decision might draw reproach and uncalled-for trouble.  Yet, to go head to head with famous foreign brands for a piece of the prestigious Asian Games pie, Li was ready to risk everything.

With Jianlibao's backing, Li applied to be the exclusive provider of sportswear for the Asiad torch relay with five millian yuan (less than one million US dollars).  That is to say, Li was going up against rivals with nearly five times as much money as he.

His emotional appeal at the office of the Asiad Organizing Committee was touching:  "If we view the torch relay as the most influential event of the Asian Games and see if as a way to heighten the self-esteem of our nation, then it doesn't make sense to have our people run in foreign clothes with foreign ads on their back!"

Li's eloquent patriotism won over the doubters and earned him the privilege of sponsoring the Asian Games.  The success of his bid enabled Li to found within a year the Guangdong Li Ning Sports Goods Co. Ltd. and complete crucial foundation work, including selecting a trade mark, purchasing equipment, recruiting technical and managing personnel and beginning production before the Games themselves.

Jianlibao was the biggest domestic sponsor of the Asiad, contributing a total of 130,000 yuan to the Games, including advertisements, drinks and 10,000 suits of "LI-NING" brand clothes.

The XI Asian Games helped Jianlibao Company and "LI-NING" brand sportswear become established.  But Li never forgot that his clothing business was not just his individual concern, but rather represented the interests and honor of the whole nation.

Li Ning does not deny that he is in business for the money.  But personal fortune is not his goal.  Instead, his eyes are set on promoting gymnastics in China.  The money he makes is a tool for realizing his goal of establishing a gymnastics school for children.

He said, "I hope in my time we will address the critical shortage of first-class training facilities in our young athletes' face.  Our current table tennis champions first learned to play on cement tables and our ace soccer players started playing on roadsides.  We can do nothing without money."

Gymnastics is one of China's stronger sports.  To date, Chinese gymnasts have won 37 gold medals at major world tournaments.  However, the sport does not enjoy the widespread popularity the aforementioned statistic would indicate.  In the former Soviet Union there were nine gymnastics schools and in the United States there are over a hundred gymnastics clubs.  China lags far behind.

On March 10, 1991, Li Ning's 28th birthday, a gymnastics school opened with 30 young children as its first batch of trainees.  It was the first of its kind in China and bore the name of its founder.

When his schedule permits, Principal Li puts aside his business and comes to give tips to the children.  Seeing the kids following in his footsteps makes him happy.

Li's former coach Zhang Jian, now deputy head of the SPCSC athletes training bureau, sighed, "Li Ning's involvement in business cost us a good coach, but now the whole Chinese sports community has powerful economic backing."

Indeed, together with Jianlibao, Li's company has done a lot for Chinese gymnastics and sports as a whole.  Recent promotional activities include the selection of the top ten Chinese gymnasts and coaches of 1991, the completion of China's first gymnastics history book, and the annual Li Ning Cup gymnastics tournament, to mention a few.

Since 1990, when the national gymnastics team first donned "LI-NING" sportswear, the national shooting, swimming and diving teams have also chosen to wear "LI-NING" clothing at international competitions.

Li's business is expanding rapidly.  At the end of 1991, his company's 12th exclusive boutique opened.  Besides clothes, chests and bags, he hopes to start turning out bodybuilding facilities in 1992.  This year, "LI-NING" brand goods will also make their way to Hong Kong, East European and American markets.  In 1993, the company will provide uniforms for the opening and closing ceremonies and the torch relay of the Seventh National Games.  In addition, he has recently turned out new designs he hopes -- if he wins the bid -- Chinese medallists will wear at the awards ceremonies of the 1992 Olympic Games.

"LI-NING" brings hope to China's younger generation," is the slogan Li himself thought up for his company.  It is rich with connotations.  It not only shows Li's pride in his products but also embodies people's high expectations of him.  The road ahead is still long indeed.

This page was created on March 31, 2001.
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