For all China's success in producing world and Olympic champions, nothing lights up national pride and imagination quite like a star who breaks free of the state system to stand astride the international stage in their own right. We are, of course, talking about basketball player Yao Ming. His retirement from the American NBA league has sparked instant nostalgia in a country where tens of millions play the sport - one he truly popularised in China - yet none appear capable of taking his place in the NBA.
Thanks to the stifling effect of a prescriptive system on the natural development of sporting talent, it may be a long time before we see his likes again. The nearest is recently crowned French open tennis champion Li Na, who, like Yao, has popularised her sport. That is not all they have in common. Regarded as a state asset, Yao was allowed an exception to the rule that athletes moving overseas must turn over at least half their income to the authorities - thanks, apparently, to the influence of his mother, a veteran national player, who is said to have bargained it down to 10 per cent. Years later, Li led a successful battle for tennis stars to have their own coaches and retain more of their earnings from the game. China is the richer for it. Both have been fine ambassadors for their country, combining diplomacy when talking about the system - to which they do, after all, owe something - with charm and humour.
The rigid mindset of the approach that produced Yao is also to be found in a national team all 2 metres or taller, groomed from exceptionally tall childhood. Never mind that the NBA's most valuable player last season was the 1.9 metre Derrick Rose. Perhaps Yao can round out his legacy - now that he can focus on the team he owns, the Shanghai Sharks - by providing more scope for natural ability. Injury and the failure of the Houston Rockets to advance in the play-offs frustrated him. But it is a measure of the man that his retirement, though expected, dominated international sports newswires for a day.