I recall an exchange in a Montreal hallway during the 1985 world championships between Li and Bart Conner, a recently retired U.S. rival. Li passed Conner while wearing a buzz cut with a few raised strands in the middle, a fad of the day for sure, but not one that had quite caught on with most of his countrymen.
"Love it," Conner shouted, running his hands through his own hair in obvious approval. "Chinese punk, I just love it."
Li smiled and seemed completely unfazed by Conner's description. "No punk," he corrected. "Style. Chinese style."
Even then, Li was seamless as a bridge between China's past and future. As a gymnast, for instance, the man who won six medals, including three golds at the 1984 Los Angeles Games, was known for both classical form and risky innovation. The man of style who practiced calligraphy was also his country's first mass-market fashionista, a man who wanted to share his sense of style with the largest audience on earth.
These days Li has his name on the largest sportswear company in the world's largest country. The idea was his, not the state's. It was his sweat equity that got it off the ground, and Li was well off the ground again during the seminal moment at the opening ceremonies in Beijing on Friday night.
Li's selection as the man to light the cauldron spoke volumes about exactly what the ceremonies were: a snapshot of where China has been for thousands of years and where it may be in thousands of seconds.
As the minutes ticked down from the warm-up show at the Bird's Nest stadium to the opening gong and fireworks display, men in traditional gray robes wheeled out large drums with elaborate calligraphy running along the sides. The old wood made the instruments, all 2008 of them, seem rather ancient and worn.
But as the minutes descended into seconds, the large surfaces of the drums lit up as the men hit them. When they struck the surfaces with proper sequence, the lights spelled out the numbers that counted down the remaining seconds: 40, then 30, 20 and finally a straight countdown from 10 to one. It was eight after eight and eight seconds plus eight decimal places of eight.
If one particular digit was seen as lucky in the language, it was six, the word liu, which sounds almost exactly like the same word for smooth road. In Li's generation the lucky number has become eight (bah), which sounds like the word fa or fa cai, which speaks of prosperity, or getting rich quickly, something a Chinese from generations gone by would never even contemplate. Li Ning, calligrapher, may have been a product of the state, but Li Ning, entrepreneur, was a by-product of his own ambition.
On Friday the torch lightning followed many elements of a spectacular opening that celebrated eras and ages before 91,000 spectators. The words of Confucius scrawled across the stadium's large upper rim in laser lights: "Friends have come from afar," it said. "How happy we are."
Men slid along a white canvas in the center of the stadium, marking the canvas with their hands as they moved. In this depiction, scrolls told the stories of 5,000 years of Chinese history and celebrated the ancient Chinese inventions of compass, gunpowder, paper and printing in a thoroughly modern interpretation.
In another segment China looked forward as astronauts and starlights emerged from a giant globe that represented the theme of the Games: One World, One Dream.
For two hours the parade of nations circled the stadium. The hosts, led by flagbearer Yao Ming, received the loudest cheers, but U.S. athletes were received well and athletes from many nations held small flags of both their own nation and China. The team from Taiwan -- known as Chinese Taipei by its Olympic designation -- was not among them.
IOC President Jacques Rogge addressed the Chinese host by calling them "hosts to the present and the gateway to the future."
Then a series of great Chinese Olympians carried the torch around the stadium until they reached Li, who was lifted, lit torch in hand, high into the air by wires attached to his back. He rose to the rim of the stadium and then made a spectacular circle around the rim before reaching the cauldron and igniting the flame that will burn until the closing ceremonies on Aug. 24. (What could London possibly do to top this in 2012?)
Li quietly saluted, descended and made way for more fireworks, as Chinese style took a bow.