In the footsteps of Li Ning
A world champion at 16 and dominant in the parallel bars and vault for a whole decade, Li Xiaopeng has won 16 major international titles and is the most successful Chinese gymnast of all time.
Changsa, the land of gymnasts
Li Xiaopeng hails from Changsa, in the province of Hunan, a city famous for producing a number of champion gymnasts over the years. He was inspired to take up the sport at the age of six by his idol Li Ning, who won three golds at Los Angeles 1984 and lit the Olympic cauldron at the Opening Ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Games while suspended in midair from a cable. The young Li’s talent soon became apparent, and on turning 16 he became his country’s youngest ever world champion when he helped China win the all-round team competition at the 1997 World Championships in Lausanne, where he also took silver in the parallel bars and bronze in the floor exercise. After deciding to specialise in the parallel bars and vault, he went on to dominate both events for the next decade.
A star in Sydney
Li won his first individual world title in the vault at Tianjin in 1999, and his trademark jump was later included in the FIG Code of Points as the “Li Xiaopeng hop”. His sparkling performances in the floor exercise, rings, vault, parallel bars and high bar at the Sydney Games in 2000 helped China win their first ever Olympic team gold. He then won individual gold in the parallel bars with a magnificent display that led to another routine being named after him: the “Li Xiaopeng arm hang”.
Three years earlier Li had suffered an elbow injury that hampered him when training on the pommel horse, effectively preventing him from challenging for all-round individual honours. Focusing instead on his two favourite pieces of equipment, he won 14 world championship, World Cup and Olympic titles in the years up to 2006; this despite an injury-hit 2004, in which a sore ankle and foot took their toll, leaving him with just a solitary bronze to show for his efforts at the Athens Games. He aggravated those injuries while winning silver on the parallel bars at the 2005 Worlds in Melbourne. After undergoing surgery back home in China in January 2006, he returned to win the World Cup final in Sao Paulo that December. Further injury woes followed, however, when he fractured a heel during a floor exercise at the 2007 Stuttgart World Championships.
Surpassing Li Ning
Having considered retiring because he lacked, as he put it, “the motivation to carry on”, Li Xiaopeng made a determined comeback in time for the Beijing Games, where he showcased his acclaimed arm hang once more en route to another Olympic victory in the parallel bars. He then excelled once more in his two preferred events to contribute to China’s victory in the all-round team competition. His two golds in Beijing took his tally of major international titles to 16, two more than his hero Li Ning, and the most achieved by any Chinese gymnast.