China's darling Liu prepares to "fly"
BEIJING (Reuters) - If the hopes of a nation can ever really be said to weigh on the shoulders of a single athlete then Liu Xiang will be carrying a hefty burden on his slender frame at the Beijing Olympics.
In a survey of more than a million Chinese carried out at the end of last year, the top Olympic dream was to witness Liu winning gold at the "Bird's Nest" stadium.
Cuba's Dayron Robles shaved a hundredth of a second off his 110 meters hurdles world record in June, but Liu remains defending Olympic champion and world title holder.
His dash to glory at the Athens Games four years ago made him his country's first male Olympic gold medalist on the track and proved, he said, that the "yellow man" could run as fast as the "black or white man."
It brought him fame and fortune in China rivaled only by basketball player Yao Ming but has also made his life more like that of a rock or film star than a track athlete.
"Liu has several cars but is not allowed to drive for fear of getting injured," a source close to the athlete, who preferred not to be named, told Reuters recently.
"Nobody asks him out for a meal in case the food has something bad in it. There is a group of men following him for 24 hours. He can't even drink a bottle of water if he doesn't know exactly where it comes from."
A confident performer in front of the cameras with a ready smile and a dry wit, Liu plays down the weight of expectation.
"The pressure has nothing to do with others," he said. "It's all about how I treat it. I think I am the best psychologist for myself."
Of course, fame has positive side.
Liu's face is everywhere in China, advertising for Nike, Coca Cola and Cadillac as well as domestic brand Yili dairies and controversially a foundation run by one of China's biggest cigarette manufacturers, Baisha.
Forbes, which ranked Liu second behind Yao in its Chinese entertainers rich list, estimated his income at $23.8 million in 2007.
Despite his wealth, Liu shares a modest flat in Shanghai with his coach, mentor and frequent mouthpiece Sun Haiping, the man who has guided his career for the last 12 years.
Liu was born in Shanghai on July 13, 1983 to Liu Xuegen and Ji Fenhua, who somewhat prophetically named him Xiang, which means "fly."
With his parents both working, Liu was brought up largely by his grandmother and still professes a taste for the braised pork in brown sauce that she fed him to fatten him up.
"He was too thin and seemed to walk in a strange way," his father said.
At the age of seven, Liu was selected as a future high jumper under a project where youngsters had their bones measured and were allocated sports depending on their anticipated growth.
Later tests, however, predicted he would not grow tall enough and, although he clearly had athletic talent, his career might have been over had Sun not turned up.
"One coach had a good eye and picked him out but he asked Liu's mother for money. The mother was angry and stopped sending Liu to the sports school," said the source.
"Later, Sun Haiping visited Liu's parents and said 'I don't want money and I will let your child eat the best and most nutritious food' and his mother was persuaded to let him go back."
With Sun improving his technique, Liu made rapid progress and set world best times for his age group from 16 to 18. He finished fourth at the 2000 world juniors and the next year was a world university games and China national champion.
From a semi-final spot at the 2001 world championships, he graduated to a bronze medal two years later. Both races were won by American Allen Johnson, from whom Liu had requested an autograph the first time they raced.
Four-times world champion Johnson fell in the heats in Athens the following August but that took nothing away from Liu's electric performance in the final that saw him claim gold and match Colin Jackson's world mark of 12.91 seconds.
After missing out on the 2005 world title to Ladji Delacoure, he was out injured for while but emerged fit in 2006 to win the world record outright with a run of 12.88 seconds in Lausanne. He finally clinched the world title at his lucky track in Osaka last year.
(Additional reporting by Liu Zhen and Benjamin Kang Lim)
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