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Tuesday, 19 September, 2000, 00:00 GMT 01:00 UK
The great tall of China
Yao has attracted plenty of attention in Sydney
Yao has attracted plenty of attention in Sydney
Chinese basketballer Ming Yao has America's NBA scouts salivating at his feet. BBC Sport's Jonathon Moore met him and quickly discovered why.

Ming Yao may well look up to his sporting hero Shaquille O'Neal, but he would have to look down should the two ever meet.

Standing seven and a half feet tall, Yao is the tallest person competing in the Olympic Games.

He can touch the rim of the hoop (10'1), without having to let daylight under the soles of his size-18 boots and alongside Wang Zhizhi (7'1) and Menk Bater (7'00) forms what opponents are already calling the Great Wall of China.

Even when he lies down he sets new standards. To cater for the particularly tall, the beds in the athletes village were designed to be extended, but Yao had to place a foam addition at the foot of his to enable him to stretch out.

Yao: The tallest competitor in Sydney
Yao: The tallest competitor in Sydney

Not that 20-year-old Yao is accustomed to a Spartan lifestyle. He plays for the Shanghai Sharks, earns around $40,000 a year and lives in their team headquarters.

Asked the secret behind his great height, Yao, said the answer was simple. "The secret," he admitted, "was to breathe lots of fresh air."

Born of basketballing parents (his mother stands 6'2 and his father 6'9), Yao was sent to a sports academy at the age of 13 where an official measured his knuckles, and predicted he would be at least 7'3.

He is, quite simply, enormous and according to his team's sponsors can only get taller.


Yao is still young... he will probably grow a little more
  Shanghai Sharks owner David Chu

"Yao is still young," said David Chu, from Shanghai Television, who own the Sharks.

"At this moment he will probably grow a little more."

Yao started life playing water polo, but was asked to change sports because he could stand on the bottom of the pool.

Four seasons in the national league have earned him a reputation for being a fearsome shot blocker. Not surprisingly, news of his achievements soon reached the NBA.

In April, Yao was invited to play in the Nike Hoop summit, an international junior tournament in Indianapolis. But the Chinese Basketball Association denied him the right to play. His country, instead, required him for Olympic duty.

"I don't think Yao has any chance of reaching the NBA yet," Chu said.

"He's still very young and we need him in Shanghai.

"He has been a key player for us now everyone wants him, but we need him so we're keeping him."

Media circus

Just how long the Sharks can do so is a matter of much debate. His $40,000-a-year-deal is pocket money to the big US clubs, who think nothing of signing talented young stars on deals worth up to $100m - excluding endorsement.

The media circus surrounding Yao is intense, but his team's refusal to allow him to attend the US international youth tournament does follow precedent.

Last year, the Dallas Mavericks drafted Zhizhi. But his team, run by the People's Liberation Army, refused to let him go.

With 200m basketball players, China is bound to thrown up a handful of stars, who have the ability to play in the NBA.

Should Yao be signed up he would be the first Asian player to do so, and no doubt, the first Chinese basketballing millionaire.

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