Sports Illustrated will announce its choice for Sportsman of the Year on Dec. 4. Below are some personal choices for that honor by SI writers.
11/28/2006 03:52:00 PM
My Sportsman: Liu Xiang
Two years before his record-breaking sprint, Liu Xiang won a gold medal in the 110-meter hurdles at the '04 Summer Games in Athens.
By Yi-Wyn Yen
Liu Xiang goes by many names in China. The Pride of Shanghai. The Chinese David Beckham. Superman. His surname, Xiang, literally means, "to soar." To me, Liu Xiang (pronounced Lyo Shang) is the guy who made me fall off a treadmill.
It was a late July afternoon when I learned that Liu had broken the world record in the 110-meter hurdles. I was at the gym running on a treadmill and I leaned towards the television monitor in front of me to get a better look of Liu leaping over the last five hurdles, outrunning U.S. sprinter Dominique Arnold by two hundredths of a second. Engrossed by the historic event, I took a misstep and flung myself right onto the floor. Quite literally, for me, Liu's feat was groundbreaking.
Liu Xiang is my pick for Sportsman of the Year because he has gone where no Asian man has gone before. Two years ago when the 6-foot-1 Liu became the first Chinese man in the sport to win an Olympic gold medal -- he equaled Colin Jackson's world record time of 12.91 seconds in the 110 meters -- he not only put the hurdles on the national radar, but he also challenged a widespread stereotype about Asian sprinters.
For decades, the Chinese have excelled in areas such as diving, ping pong (and censorship), not sprinting. But Liu, a personable Shanghai native with a sharp, chiseled jaw, has changed that notion. His world-record time of 12.88 at the Athletics Grand Prix in Switzerland broke a record Jackson had held since 1993. An unknown talent who wasn't even expected to medal in Athens, he is now the overwhelming favorite to repeat gold in Beijing.
"Before winning the Olympics in 2004, I always thought it was impossible to get close to Jackson's world record," he said.
Growing up, Liu had to battle a long-held belief that Asians don't have the physiological makeup to compete at the elite level in short sprint distances. In fifth grade, he was urged by his school to give up sports because he was too short to compete. When he switched to hurdles from the high jump in 1996, some coaches thought the highly technical specialty a waste of time.
Liu, however, never gave up on his sport. Four months into running hurdles, he was posting times that placed him in the top echelon of his age group. In 2001, he set the world junior record of 13.12 at Lausanne, the same track where he set the current world record.
A few weeks after he set his world record, I was in Beijing and saw an ad plastered on the side of a truck: A smiling Liu was hawking Visa cards. I pointed at the sign and asked my taxi driver if he ever imagined a Chinese man becoming the world's best hurdler.
"Of course," he said. "We are becoming strong and powerful, just like Liu Xiang. He is the pride of China. In 2008, the rest of the world will see him compete and see that he is the best."