THE ELEVATOR doors whisper shut. Inside, a familiar silence fills the box as it drops earthward from the 86th floor of the Empire State Building on a late spring morning. Against the rear wall Liu Xiang clasps his hands behind his back and nods gently, looking all around, as if he can see beyond the shiny walls to the world outside. ¶ He wears dark jeans and a Nike anorak zipped to his throat; wisps of dark hair fall across his forehead. Earlier Liu had conducted a ponderous press conference in the lobby of the great building, his answers drifting into a tall atrium, lost in a jumble of echoes. Then he had talked through a series of smaller interviews on the observation deck, 1,050 feet above 34th Street, emotionlessly explaining his culture, his event, his pressure, all in advance of two scheduled track meets in the U.S. Now he is headed back to his hotel for lunch in the company of his coach, his agent and a representative of the Chinese national team. ¶ The elevator rumbles down, and the faintest of smiles comes across Liu's face. "King Kong," he says, in English. As peals of laughter follow, he nods, relishing his punchline. And perhaps his moment of repose as well.
In the Olympic Games athletes wear the uniform of their nation. This is a geographic formality in some instances, a business arrangement in others and a source of genuine pride in many more. Then there is the rare athlete for whom the passion of the host country is draped across his shoulders like a yoke of expectation, his success linked inextricably to his nation's self-esteem.
Austrian skier Franz Klammer was such an athlete when he raced a downhill course above the city of Innsbruck in 1976, winning on the fine edge of recklessness. Australian sprinter Cathy Freeman was such an athlete when she won the 400 meters in Sydney in 2000, carried by a wave of noise in a stadium filled to its capacity of more than 112,000. Afterward she waved both the Aboriginal and national flags, uniting and celebrating in one simple gesture.
Yet there has never been an athlete of this ilk quite like Liu Xiang, a 110-meter hurdler. Four years ago Liu won the gold medal at the 2004 Games in Athens, crossing the finish with his face contorted in a primal mask of effort and elation. His life changed in that moment. "As soon as I got off the plane from Athens," Liu says in Mandarin, translated by an interpreter, "all of the cameras were on me. All of the focus was on me." From that point forward, the night of Thursday, Aug. 21, 2008—when the 25-year-old Liu should defend his title in Beijing's National Stadium—became central to the lives of many Chinese.
"I really don't think that any athlete in any Olympic sport has ever experienced the kind of pressure that Liu Xiang is under," says James Li, who was born and educated in China and now is the coach of U.S. distance runner Bernard Lagat and the manager of the U.S. Olympic team. "When you think about how big the country is, and he is almost carrying all of the hopes of the Chinese people, it really is unbelievable."
ON THE weekend of May 22 to 25, the National Stadium (also known as the Bird's Nest) hosted a track and field test event. Volunteers were hired to control the crowds seeking to get near Liu, but the volunteers themselves needed to be controlled when Liu was present. Before every heat of the 110 hurdles, a black-and-white video clip of Liu's Athens victory was shown on the stadium's big screen, beginning with the words (in Chinese characters) CHINA'S FLYING MAN in white against a black background and closing with CAN HE SURPASS HIMSELF? Crowds chanted for his every move: Liu Xiang, jia you! Liu Xiang, jia you! (Liu Xiang, add fuel!)
Liu is the central character in a Nike TV commercial airing in China in which several athletes appear on the screen and say, "Wo jiushi" ("I am"), followed by another word, such as fendou ("struggle"). Liu Xiang appears last and has a different line. He intones in Mandarin, "I am Liu Xiang. Who are you?" While every figure in the commercial is a well-known Chinese athlete, Liu is the only one identified by name.
Interestingly, Liu's event is otherwise foreign to the Chinese. He is the country's first male Olympic gold medalist in any track and field event and the first Chinese hurdler to successfully compete with the best in the world. (Two years after winning in Athens, Liu ran 12.88 seconds to break the existing world record by .03; his mark was broken in June by Cuba's Dayron Robles, who ran a 12.87 and is Liu's presumptive rival for the 2008 gold.)
"The Chinese people care, not because they understand this particular track event," says Li. "They care because they think he's going to be the winner. This is just my personal view of the country, but I really believe there is something in the national psyche that desires a winner. The country had been so proud and then was beaten up by other world powers—[it] is almost like this one track race would redeem the country. And that's the pressure on Liu Xiang."
Now Liu sits in the back of a minivan ferrying him 10 blocks through midtown Manhattan congestion. "The traffic is familiar," he says, looking out the window. Liu speaks in a soft voice, even when animated, and has a world weariness about him that comes from being any country's No. 1 celebrity in anything.