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Liu Xiang feels pressure as Olympics near

Source: www.wcsn.com

1 June 2007
By Elliott Denman

There's a legend -- said to be growing throughout China -- that Liu Xiang, the world record-holder in the men's 110-meter high hurdles, is the reincarnation of Liu Changchun, China's first athlete of the modern Olympic era.

But Liu Xiang laughs it all off.

"No, it is not true, each of us is a different person, each of us has his own soul," he said with a huge smile, through an interpreter, at a press conference before the Reebok Grand Prix meet at Icahn Stadium, on Randalls Island on Saturday.

If you think the slumping New York Yankees are facing pressure, consider the kind of pressure Liu must learn to handle.

The 23-year-old Shanghai resident is the No. 1 gold medal hope of the world's most populous nation heading into the buildup to the Beijing Olympics in 2008.

With the hopes and aspirations of over 1.3 billion countrymen and countrywomen riding on his shoulders, Liu will need all the comic relief he can muster to maintain his equilibrium in the 15 months preceding the Beijing Games.

China did not compete at any of the modern Olympics from the first in Athens 1896 to the eighth at Amsterdam in 1928. But then Liu Changchun made his appearance at the Los Angeles Olympic Games of 1932.

He came in as a longshot and returned home in the same capacity.

He finished last in his heat of the 100-meter dash, a race where the gold, silver and bronze medals eventually went to America's Eddie Tolan and Ralph Metcalfe and Germany's Arthur Jonath.

Liu Changchun then finished last in his heat of the 200-meter sprint, a race in which Tolan claimed his second gold medal with American teammates George Simpson and Metcalfe second and third.

Liu Changchun returned to the Olympics at Berlin in 1936 and, once again, was nowhere to be seen when the 100-meter and 200-meter finals were run off. These golds, of course, went to America's Jesse Owens.

By contrast, Liu Xiang's debut on the Olympic stage was a completely smash hit.

Not only did he win the 2004 Athens 110-meter high hurdles final in 12.91 seconds, but he equaled Colin Jackson's 1993 world record in the process. America's Terrence Trammell (13.18) and Cuba's Anier Garica (13.20) were nowhere close in the silver and bronze-medal positions.

To win an Olympic gold medal is a huge achievement in its own right. But to win it at world-record pace put it in a very rare category of its own.

Liu Xiang's Athens gold was a stunning upset triumph to many but not one to the students of the sport who'd been tracking his meteoric progress in the event.

By 2002, he was the world junior record-holder, replacing American Renaldo Nehemiah's 24-year-old world best with a 13.12 performance of his own.

At the 2003 world championships in Paris, he was a close third in the hurdles final with a 13.23 performance, just back of Allen Johnson's 13.12 gold-medal race for the United States and Trammell's silver finish in 13.20.

It set up the Shanghai shooting star as a top candidate for Athens in 2004, and he surely didn't disappoint all his fans back home.

Now, his job will be twofold. First, he wants to win at August's IAAF World Championships in Osaka, and second, he wants to repeat at the Beijing Games of 2008.

When he lowered the world record to 12.88 last July 11 at Lausanne, Switzerland, it only solidified his status as the world number one.

The scenario is already being written for Osaka and Beijing, and a lively chapter is sure to enfold at Icahn Stadium on Saturday.

Liu Xiang has run just one big outdoor race this spring, winning in 13.14 at Osaka on May 5. But two Americans have run faster - 13.12 each - in the early phases of the 2007 campaign. Anwar Moore crossed the line in 13.12 to win at Fresno, Calif., also on May 5. And David Payne replicated the 13.12 in a May 11 victory at Doha, Qatar.

Moore and Payne will be on the line with Liu Xiang at Icahn Stadium, and the start list also includes Maurice Wignall of Jamaica, and five other fast Americans - two-time Olympic silver medalist Trammell, reigning U.S. champion Domique Arnold, Aries Merritt, David Oliver and Ryan Wilson. When Liu Xiang was setting his world record of 12.88 last year, it was Dominique Arnold chasing him over the finish line and setting his own Aemrican record of 12.90 in the process.

Liu Xiang is already recognized as one of the "good guys" of international sport.

When authorities at home started a campaign to raise funds for a Shanghai school project, Liu Xiang immediately donated his Olympic spiked shoes to the cause. Amazingly, the bidding began at 1.2 million dollars. And what does he think of the Americans and Jamaica's Wignall he'll face at Icahn Stadium?

"I do not see them as opponents, just as old friends," he said.

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