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He initially tries to downplay his nation's expectations. "There's no pressure, because I already have a gold medal," he says. "All that matters is that I compete well." Yet Liu is far too thoughtful to hide behind empty aphorisms that neither he nor anyone else believes.
"I know that people in China want me to win my race very, very much," he finally acknowledges. "But I don't want to think about what other people think. I just want to stay very relaxed and live a very normal life."
He is asked, then, could he simply leave his Beijing apartment and go to a shop or the market? He smiles broadly and shakes his head. "Not possible," he says. "I can only go places where very few people visit. Places that are very expensive."
LIU BEGAN hurdling at age 15. The son of a water company employee and a pastry cook (neither works now), he had been a good age-group high jumper when renowned coach Sun Haiping came to Liu's sports school in Shanghai and ran the athletes through a series of tests. "Most of the children were afraid of the hurdles, and they would [slow down to] jump over them," says Sun. "Liu Xiang was not afraid of the hurdles. I was confident that he could be the champion of Shanghai and run 13.5 seconds."
That estimate had to be swiftly readjusted. In 2001, just his third year of hurdling, Liu won the gold at the World University Games in Beijing in 13.33 seconds, and eight months later he dropped his PR to 13.12 at a Grand Prix meet in Lausanne, Switzerland. By the time he reached Athens, he was among the favorites. A year after those Games he finished second to Ladji Doucouré of France at the world championships in Helsinki, and last summer he won the world title in Osaka. He is solidly established as one of the best and most consistent hurdlers in history.
Liu has succeeded despite modest sprint speed; 10.4 seconds is his best time for the 100 meters. (Two-time Olympic silver medalist Terrence Trammell of the U.S. has run 10.04.) "The thing about Liu is that he can actually maximize the speed he has, without overstriding," says former 110 hurdles world-record holder Renaldo Nehemiah. "Most guys have to take two and a half steps between hurdles; he takes a full three. And he is an absolutely fearless competitor. This is an event that has been historically dominated by North Americans, along with a few Cubans and Colin Jackson [of Great Britain]. And Liu Xiang is not afraid of anybody."
That competitive zeal will be necessary, given his unusual preparation for these Games. Liu had planned to run only at the Reebok Grand Prix in New York City on May 31 and then at the Prefontaine Classic in Eugene, Ore., on June 8, but he skipped the former with a tight right hamstring and was disqualified from the latter after a false start that some track insiders felt was intentional. ("We laughed out loud," says Nehemiah.) Liu will enter the Olympics without having run any high-level outdoor races this year; the 21-year-old Robles has been running frequently in Europe in the weeks before Beijing.
(Cynics might suggest that Liu is trying to avoid the drug testing that accompanies major meets; Sun says Liu has been tested "at least 30 times this year, sometimes two days in a row.")
Allen Johnson, the 1996 Olympic hurdles champion, says, "Right now I give the advantage to Robles. But Liu Xiang has an edge in big races. Most of us need to get race-ready, so to speak. Liu Xiang seems to be the one guy who can roll right out of the box and just compete."
A healthy Liu is a proven performer on the championship stage, but Beijing will be a much different platform: 110 meters, 10 hurdles, 51 steps, 13 seconds, 1.3 billion countrymen. "Very high expectations," says Sun.