By Lindsay Beck BEIJING (Reuters) - China’s “Prince of Gymnasts” Li Ning gave the ultimate compliment to his country’s current crop of competitors, saying on Thursday the men’s Olympic gymnastics team was even better than his own.

Members of the Chinese team pose with their gold medals on the podium after winning the men's team artistic gymnastics final at the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games August 12, 2008. REUTERS/Mike Blake

Li, 44, won the most medals of any athlete at the 1984 Games in Los Angeles, returning home with three golds, two silvers and a bronze, before retiring from gymnastics to build a sportswear company that bears his name.

“They’re really outstanding,” Li said of the Chinese men. “Now the level of difficulty is extremely high. I think they’re even better than we were then.” Li lit the cauldron at the Olympics opening ceremony with a daredevil act that saw him hoisted in mid-air above a packed Bird’s Nest stadium, a feat that the current gymnasts said gave them inspiration.

China’s men have dominated the Beijing Games, storming to a team gold led by Yang Wei, who also collected a gold in the men’s all-around.

Yang Wei of China listens to applause after winning the men's individual all-around artistic gymnastics gold medal at the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games August 14, 2008. REUTERS/Hannibal Hanschke

They were on the podium for every other apparatus but the vault, from Li Xiaopeng on the parallel bars and Xiao Qin on the pommel horse, to Chen Yibing’s gold on rings, to two golds for youngster Zou Kai on the horizontal bar and floor.

“I think they’re all very strong,” said Li. “Personally, I like Li Xiaopeng the best because his routines, apart from their level of difficulty, have the most artistic value.”

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China’s women also won a team gold, but were less dominant than expected in individual apparatus competitions.

Li said the younger women’s team may have struggled with the extreme pressure of home-crowd expectations.

“They’re execution wasn’t as good as it could be,” he said. “I think there is a lot of pressure -- but I‘m not their coach so I really don’t fully understand.”

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