Xie Wenjun, David Oliver, Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, Aries Merrit and Li Jinzhe at the press conference ahead of the IAAF Diamond League meeting in Shanghai (© Errol Anderson)
The topic of icons is not one you would necessarily associate with an athletics press conference, but icons got a fair old work-out in Shanghai on Saturday ahead of the IAAF Diamond League meeting on Sunday (17).
Local boy Liu Xiang has been inextricably linked with the Shanghai meeting throughout its 11-year history. He was already an Olympic champion when it was established in 2005, but his victory in the 110m hurdles in Athens undoubtedly gave the new fixture immediate status, one that he continually burnished with his own performances over the years.
Perhaps not so surprisingly then, hurdlers Aries Merritt, David Oliver and Xie Wenjun were asked their opinion on the icon of their generation of hurdlers, while the topic was broadened out to Li Jinzhe when it came to who would be the next icon of Chinese athletics. Through it all, Shelly-Ann Frase-Pryce maintained a dignified poise.
“I am,” says Oliver. “He is,” say Xie and Li.
Olympic champion Merritt was first to go on the question of event icon.
“I don’t know if I’m anyone’s icon,” Merritt replied, adding that he was positive “David will say he is.
“I just try to be the best that I can be,” said Merritt.
True to his rival’s prediction, Oliver did grasp the mantle.
“I definitely feel that I am the icon of the event, given my level of performance over 11 years,” Oliver said.
“But I don’t expect anyone else to regard me as an icon,” Oliver added, which was just as well as Merritt alongside him was looking a little iconoclastic.
The question to Li and Xie was prefaced on the assumption that China now needed a new hero. Could they cope with the pressure, was the query.
“I think Xie should take this responsibility,” Li deadpanned, “and become the flagship for our sport. Runners are more recognisable (than jumpers). People pay more attention to them.”
Xie took a more inclusive line, before nominating Li.
“The young (Chinese) generation keeps on growing and have achieved many breakthroughs, especially at the level of the Asian Games. You can expect that potential to start bearing fruit.
“I expect Li Jinzhe to become the next icon, and to win the gold medal in Rio.”
Even without Liu’s presence, a significant amount of the pre-meeting press conference was taken up with a farewell ceremony for him which will take place after the final event – the hurdles, what else.
Oliver and Merritt, two of Liu’s greatest rivals over his career, will both take part in the ceremony, though clearly neither knew much more about it than that.
“He’s one of the greatest in the sport,” said Oliver, “and has been an ambassador on the track for China. I’m sure he will be an ambassador of it, too, in his new role.”
“It’s sad to see him leave, but he feels his time in the sport is up. I wish him well,” said Merritt.
On his form, Oliver said that he was in pretty good shape, despite a disaster at the Manchester City Games.
“Form-wise I’m going pretty well – 13.19 and 13.25 to start, and now a good competition here.”
But, he added, it was necessary to keep on building on a good start: “The home run you hit last night doesn’t win today’s game.”
Merritt has run 13.29. “My goal is to run faster than my season best,” he said. “There is a lot of new talent in the event.
“You never know what to expect in hurdles,” Merritt added. The Doha IAAF Diamond League women’s 100m hurdles was a reminder of that.
Oliver demurred when asked if the Shanghai competition would be a dress rehearsal for the IAAF World Championships.
“This time in 2013 I was running crap,” he said bluntly. “So, for me, it had no bearing on what happened later (Oliver won the World Championships in Moscow).”
Fraser-Pryce keen to leave 2014 behind
Fraser-Pryce came back to earth a little in 2014 after a stellar 2013 which yielded two individual and one relay gold medal at the World Championships.
“Last year was disappointing,” she admitted, “but it was important to stay active because 2015 is a World Championships year.
“The field here is a good one, as always. It’s hard to hide in women’s sprints. There is always one, or sometimes many, to push you hard. I just want to execute my 100m really well.”
Fraser-Pryce said she had started with a 22.37 this year, “which I’ve never done, including 2013, so I’m feeling pretty good.”
Fraser-Pryce indicated she may do the 100m only at this year’s World Championships, though stressed the decision would be made in conjunction with her coach.
“If the coach says I can do it, then I will.”
Fraser-Pryce said she had run the 100m-200m double for the past three years.
“It’s hard on your body and with the Olympic Games next year I don’t know (if I want to do it again).”
Li lauds World Championships final field
Li Jinzhe was under no illusions about the task facing him in the men’s long jump.
“It looks like the final of a World Championships,” said Li. With names like Greg Rutherford, Aleksandr Menkov, current world leader Jeff Henderson, Godfrey Mokoena and Ignisious Gaisah on the list, it is hard to argue.
“You can regard this as a World Championships final,” Li repeated for emphasis.
Len Johnson for the IAAF