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A billion people can't be wrong as nation celebrates new world mark

13 July 2006

By Patrick Kidd

As birthday presents go, breaking a world record and receiving the adulation of a billion people is not bad. China woke yesterday to the news that Liu Xiang, an athlete from Shanghai who turns 23 today, had shattered Colin Jackson’s 13-year-old world record for the 110 metre hurdles.

By the end of the day, his achievement in Lausanne on Tuesday night was being heralded with 20-minute features on the national news. Liu, who won the gold medal at the Athens Olympics two years ago but has shown patchy form since, is suddenly China’s version of David Beckham.

He celebrated in superstar fashion, ripping his top off for a bare-chested lap of honour, and then called his Mum, like any dutiful child. “I jumped up and down at the news,” Ji Fenhua, his mother, told China’s national broadcaster. “We were so excited that we couldn’t sleep after the call.”

It was 4am in Shanghai when the news came. “I could tell by the sound of his voice that something special had happened,” Liu Xuegen, his father, said. “He told me that he felt he had shown a bit too much of his delight (by stripping).”

Liu, who broke the world junior record at Lausanne in 2002, gave thanks to the Swiss city and its fans. “I love Switzerland,” he said. “It is my place of good luck and joy.”

The young hurdler broke the record of 12.91sec that he has shared with Jackson since the Olympic final in 2004 by 0.03sec and has guaranteed himself a series of lucrative sponsorship offers in the run-up to the Beijing Games, which start in just over two years.

He is already in third place on the Forbes list of the most marketable Chinese celebrities, behind Yao Ming, the NBA basketball player, and Zhang Ziyi, the actress who starred in Memoirs of a Geisha.

“The outstanding result achieved by Liu Xiang will be a huge encouragement and inspiration to our nation’s athletes as they prepare for the 2008 Olympics,” China’s track and field association said, adding that his performance “brings glory to the motherland and the people”.

A headline in the Beijing Evening News said that “12.88 (his record time) belongs to Liu Xiang and to China”. The national television news yesterday promised to bake a birthday cake for Liu and ice it with his winning time.

China has not yet produced many other track and field athletes capable of setting the world on fire at the next Olympics. Xing Huina won the gold medal in the women’s 10,000 metres in Athens but came fourth at the World Championships in Helsinki last year — only Liu, with a silver, won a medal for China — and was disqualified from the Chinese National Games in October for elbowing an opponent.

There are still hopes that athletes such as Zhu Hongjun, the 20-kilometre walker whose best time of 1hr 17min 41sec is 20 seconds slower than the world record, or Zhou Chunxiu, who came fifth in the women’s marathon in Helskini, can win medals at the Olympics, but Liu is the anointed golden boy.

His parents wanted him to be a computer engineer or some other middle-class professional, but he was always interested in athletics, competing as a high jumper until he tried the sprint hurdles as a 13-year-old. Two years later he was spotted by Sun Haiping, a well-known coach, who turned him into the world’s best junior hurdler.

Liu’s determination is driven by a need to show respect for the grandmother who raised him while his parents were at work. Her special cuisine of braised pork in brown sauce gave him energy, he says, and it remains his favourite dish. She died shortly after he came first at the World Univeristy Games and the 2001 National Games.

Despite his fame, Liu remains down to earth. He is said to be an excellent singer, and a keen numismatist who buys coins to add to his collection whenever he is abroad.

His modesty may come from his father, who tried not to get too carried away yesterday, saying that he would not be meeting his son at the airport in Beijing on his return or buying him any special birthday presents. “I’ll wait for him here and make him something nice to eat,” he said. “Isn’t the world record the best present he could have?”

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