Active sports heroes Yao Ming and Liu Xiang may have been mentioned most as favourites to light the Olympic cauldron, but the man who was eventually picked stands for the modern China, dpa reported.
Li Ning won three gold medals, two silvers and one bronze in gymnastics at China's Olympic debut 1984 in Los Angeles. He is now a successful businessman with a shoe and sports goods company, Beijing Li Ning Sports.
Li Ning stocks rose on the Hong Kong exchange earlier Friday as speculation grew that the 44-year-old would get the extraordinary honour.
He did so in awesome style, lifted high in the air by ropes, circling the stadium and then lighting the giant cauldron.
Li follows a proud tradition of final torch bearers, including Muhammad Ali 1996 in Atlanta and Cathy Freeman 2000 in Sydney.
Born in a Zhuang family on September 8, 1963, Li took the gymnastics world by storm when communist China appeared for the first time at the Olympics in LA 24 years ago.
He won gold in the floor exercise, pommel horse and rings, silver in the team event and vault, and bronze in the all-around event.
"The Prince of gymnastics" retired from the sport in 1988, was inducted into the Gymnastics Hall of Fame in 2000.
He founded Li Ning in 1990. The brand is popular in China but makes only one per cent of its revenue on the world stage where it lags far behind its self-declared rivals Nike and adidas.
Like at all Olympics, there was plenty of speculation about the last torch bearer.
The basketball star Yao and 110m hurdles Olympic champion Liu were the top picks ahead of the March 24 lighting of the Olympic flame in ancient Olympia.
But Liu was then among the first torch-bearers in China and Yao's turn came on Wednesday, which effectively ruled both out as according to tradition the torch is only carried once per bearer.
Li's name was not prominently mentioned until the eve of the opening ceremony.
The lighting of the cauldron marked the end of the longest and most controversial torch relay in Olympic history.
The flame travelled some 137,000 kilometres, mostly by air, over 130 days of international and Chinese torch relay legs, including a leg to the summit of Mount Everest.
Anti-Chinese government protests that dogged several international legs of the relay prompted some International Olympic Committee members to propose curtailing or ending the recent practice of holding international legs.