Cheng asks you to
leave the grounds, but you take your time, soaking in the cyclists circling the
velodrome, the crumbling concrete of a 20-year-old institution that looks two
decades older, the massive signs in Chinese: be positive. WORK HARD. CLIMB THE
HIGH MOUNTAIN. WIN GLORY FOR THE COUNTRY. Photos celebrating Liu's world record
of 12.88 seconds in the 110-meter hurdles, set in July 2006 in Lausanne,
Switzerland, hang on nearly every wall.
Shanghai native is indeed something new in Chinese sports: After shocking the
field by winning the 2004 gold medal in Athens, Liu spoke openly about how his
was a victory for all "the yellow-skinned people" who never thought
they could compete with American--read: black--sprinters. He was instantly
viewed within China as the greatest leap forward yet for a nation long saddled
with an inferiority complex toward the West: a champion who beats the
established powers at their own game, the embodiment of China's long-awaited
emergence as a force on the world stage.
any person in China had a chance to do something like that," says Ren Hai,
director of the Centre for Olympic Studies at Beijing Sport University.
" Liu Xiang has become part of our cultural identity. He is a symbol."
As such Liu will feel a pressure unlike any other Chinese athlete in the year
to come. "There's nothing I can do about it," he said in a Q-and-A
session with Chinese students at Columbia University in May while he was in New
York City for the Reebok Grand Prix meet. "It's only when an athlete sleeps
that the pressure eases." He paused and smiled. "What can I do about
it? Can you tell me?"
Whenever Liu returns to China after competing abroad, he might appear on TV
singing karaoke, but he is otherwise enveloped by the bureaucratic equivalent
of the Great Wall. It's not that he's being silenced, necessarily (even the
most recalcitrant official tells you to grab Liu for an interview when he
competes overseas); it's simply in no one's interest to buck the system. When
you approach Sun Haiping, Liu's coach, outside the training facility, he shakes
his head sadly. "If we were in the States, we could talk to you," he
says as Liu strolls past en route to the track. "But we're in China now.
You have to go through official channels."
Four phone calls
up the ladder end with a woman from China's National Sports Administration, who
says, "It's going to take a long time to make a decision on your request.
More often than not, the answer is no."
The fact is,
interviews are a distraction with the Games just a year away, and everybody in
China has a vested interest in keeping Liu's focus on the track. The Chinese
finished only four gold medals behind the U.S. (36 to 32) in Athens and third
in total medals (63 to the U.S.'s 102 and Russia's 92), and they will need
every victory they can get to move to the top of the standings in Beijing.
Though Liu's face is all over China, used to promote everything from Visa cards
to his country's version of FedEx, it's not worth arguing that an interview in
an American magazine could help open a new market for him. In the ongoing
Chinese battle between the free market and state control, there's no question
where the ultimate power lies.
moment," says Lu Hao, who handles marketing for China's track and field
federation, "the state is going to win."
Few men know
better. With his track connection and role as Yao Ming's domestic
representative, the 41-year-old Lu could well bill himself as the most powerful
agent in China. But though his cellphone rings constantly, he hardly carries
himself like the Middle Kingdom version of Scott Boras; asked his feeling about
his industry's future in the world's most populous nation, he says, "More
anxiety--more confusion--than hope.
sports in China is in its early stages still, so it's very difficult for us to
do business here," Lu says. Example? Lu represented Chinese basketball's
hottest new property--forward Yi Jianlian--from 2004 until one day in early
2006, when Yi's team, the Guangdong Hongyuan basketball club, decided that it
would serve as Yi's agent. Any agreement between player and agent was
meaningless. Lu was out.
"I don't know
how to explain it," says Lu. "In the NBA the players, agents and press
all have their own rules, and there's a legal guarantee behind those rules. In
the Chinese Basketball Association there are no [such] rules."