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.
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.
"It's almost unfair," says Li.
On a spring afternoon in New York, Liu Xiang scuffs at the sidewalk in clunky, skateboarder Nikes. "I try not to let the environment change my life," he says of all the pressure. "I try to change the environment." He changes it only by winning, because only winning will satisfy.
More track and field coverage leading up to the Games from Tim Layden at SI.com/Olympics.
"No athlete in any Olympic sport," says Li, "has experienced the kind of PRESSURE that Liu Xiang is under."
China's Gold Strategy
Shortly after China was awarded these Games seven years ago, its sports leaders devised Project 119, an initiative to help boost their country to the top of the Beijing medal standings. One-one-nine refers to the number of golds given out at the 2000 Games in the medal-rich sports of track and field, swimming, rowing, sailing and canoe/kayak. In Sydney, China won only one medal, total, in those sports.
At this year's Games the home team could win more than a dozen medals in the Project 119 events—potentially enough to make a difference in a tight battle with the U.S. for the No. 1 spot. Given their traditional strength in table tennis, diving, badminton and gymnastics (in which Yang Wei, top right, is favored to win the men's all-around); their domination of shooting (in which they could win 10 of the 15 events); their depth in women's sports (with stars like weightlifter Liu Haixia, right, world champion in the 139-pound class); and the usual surge in victories by the host country, the Chinese should easily top their 2004 totals of 63 medals (third behind the U.S.'s 102 and Russia's 92) and 32 golds (second to the U.S.'s 36). An analysis in June by the accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers projected that China would edge the U.S. in total medals 88--87, and a British university study predicted a stunning 46 golds for the hosts. Bookmakers have made the Chinese the favorites to win both the overall and gold medal counts. What will actually happen in Beijing? See SI's Medal Picks section (page 109).
Photographs by Gérard Rancinan
TECHNICAL KNOCKOUT Liu (winning gold in Athens) lacks the sprint speed of some of his rivals but has perfect form, rarely chopping his steps between hurdles.