SOME THINGS HAVE NOT changed for one of China's most memorable Olympic gold medallists, Li Ning - the goals, the pressure and the competition. Almost 16 years after leaving competitive sports, the mainland's 'prince of gymnastics' says that in business as in sport, the heat is always on 'until the moment you step on to the podium [to receive the medal]'. This month, Mr Li, now chairman of his eponymous sporting goods company, is taking on another international challenge - to convince investors why they should stake a claim in Li Ning Co, with sales of 1.28 billion yuan last year. Although Li Ning Co has sponsored China's best sportsmen and sportswomen at international competitive sporting events, it has yet to make significant inroads into the international market. 'We still have a certain gap [in product quality] with the international brands,' the slightly built 41-year-old says. 'But in China, we have an edge. We know the Chinese people's physique, their culture and their budgets.' Such understanding came as Mr Li and his team, developing their business over 14 years, watched China's sporting goods industry take shape. The industry's growth has been propelled by an increasingly affluent urban population, for whom sports and casual wear is part and parcel of modern life. The sporting goods business in China, as it is abroad, is not just about creating appropriate sportswear for different sports, Mr Li says, but 'how to create and merge an image with functionality of the product'. His marketing team is responding to greater consumer demand for quality. 'Our biggest headache is R&D, which needs to be developed [much] further,' Mr Li says. This is where the company's Hong Kong initial public offering, which begins tomorrow, comes into play. It is seeking to raise $549.7 million by selling 246 million shares. The listing should help the 15-year-old firm, already China's leading sportswear brand, accrue global exposure and capital to invest in research and product development. The company will use some of the proceeds to establish an R&D centre in Hong Kong, and also boost its facilities in Foshan, Guangdong. The Li Ning story is highly marketable. Not many mainland athletes, after all, have gone on to become successful entrepreneurs. Its chairman's compelling story aside, the company is a mainland pioneer when it comes to sponsoring Chinese athletes in regional and international events, and the only domestic sports brand to become an Olympic sponsor. Then there is the market. China's retail sales grew 12.5 per cent in the first five months of this year over the same period last year, exceeding two trillion yuan. Moreover, the sporting goods market is expected to record double-digit growth in the run-up to the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing. Mainland officials estimate the country's 'sporting population' will number 500 million by 2010. Mr Li has designated 2008 as the deadline for his company to become a real international player. Exports - principally to Italy, Russia and Spain - account for only 3 per cent of total sales, according to DBS Vickers Securities, a unit of the Singapore bank that is sponsoring Li Ning Co's offer. In China, on the other hand, the company is the country's leading brand with 2,500 retail outlets and concessions nationwide. This year, it is expected to turn in revenues of 1.73 billion yuan and a net profit of 123 million yuan. Next to domestic rivals, Li-Ning has a clear head start but competition remains keen from competing brands such as Anta, Doublestar and Kangwei. China's opening of its retail industry in accordance with its World Trade Organisation accession agreement has given added momentum to the ambitious mainland development efforts of multinationals such as Nike, Adidas and Reebok. Foreign brands tend to target the high-end market in which Li-Ning also competes, although most of its sales come from the mid-priced sector. Li Ning Co's popularity in its home market can be attributed to its early adoption of sports sponsorship as a marketing strategy. Of course, the star power of its chairman did not hurt, either. A sporting icon of the 1980s, many remember Mr Li as the shy, dimpled young gymnast who won over the judges at the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, winning three gold medals. Fewer recall his lacklustre performance four years later in Seoul. Speaking of what he calls his 'tragic failure' in 1988, Mr Li remembers that 'many Hong Kong newspaper reports were not very polite. It made me think I should choose another career'. While Chinese athletes usually retire to professional coaching careers, Mr Li opted to become an entrepreneur. Chinese people, he reckoned, needed a sports brand of their own. And Mr Li thought who better than himself to give them one. 'I'm a sports person and I have the experience,' he says. Mr Li says he felt proud when, at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, he saw Chinese athletes receive their medals dressed in Li-Ning sportswear, rather than Nike or other foreign brands. Mr Li did not shun coaching entirely. For the past eight years his company has financed a gymnastics school in Foshan. The school now has 300 students between the ages of five and 10. 'We want to help kids grow and bring some happiness to families,' the entrepreneur says, adding that his company would like to open a second such school. For China's prince of gymnastics, who lets off steam with swimming and racquet games, competitive highs now come solely from the business sphere. 'The pressure is always there,' he says. 'It's not about upholding past glories but working towards future glory.' BIOGRAPHY Li Ning, chairman of his eponymous sporting goods chain, emerged as a star on the international sporting stage at the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, where he collected three gold medals, two silver and one bronze. His performance in Seoul in 1988 was less successful, and he launched his business career a year later. Mr Li holds a bachelor's degree in law from Peking University, and completed an executive MBA programme from the university's Guanghua School of Management in 2002. In 1999, he was voted one of the world's 'most excellent 20th century athletes' by the World Sports Correspondents Association.