Liu Xiang equals the World record to take gold in the 110m Hurdles in Athens (© Getty Images)
Athens, GreeceIt all began on a cold summer evening in Lausanne, Switzerland on Tuesday 2 July 2002.
Standing behind the starting blocks ready to compete in his first European Grand Prix meeting 18-year-old Xiang Liu was looking straight at the finish line, concentrating on the task ahead of him.
Two years before at the IAAF World Junior Championships the Shanghai-born teenager was a disappointing fourth in the 110m Hurdles final when the day before he had superbly won his semi-final heat in a new national Junior record 13.75.
Since, Xiang vowed he would never miss out on major Championships medal positions.
World Junior record in 2002
In Lausanne, Xiang was running in the B race, not able to be given a lane in the main race which offered a star-studded field with World record holder Colin Jackson, four-time World champion Allen Johnson, Olympic champion Anier Garcia, European silver medallist Stanislavs Olijars, and Olympic silver medallist Terrence Trammell.
Xiang knew it was his chance to show his idols what a fantastic up-and-coming athlete he was and he didn’t miss his chance as, assisted by a 1.6m/s tail wind he set a new World Junior record of 13.12. In breaking Renaldo Nehemiah’s mark which had stood as the best ever Junior time since 1978, Xiang was now part of the elite.
Incidentally, he defeated 1996 Olympic silver medallist Mark Crear and Florian Schwartoff who had been third in Atlanta. Not bad for a first Grand Prix meeting.
Allen Johnson's autograph
After the race, Xiang went up to Allen Johnson, his all-time favourite and idol, and asked for his autograph unaware that two years later he would be the one to sign tons of autographs.
Winner of the A race in 13.03, Anier Garcia remembers the evening very well.
“Ever since he set that World Junior record, I’ve been watching him,” said Garcia three weeks before the Olympic Games. “I remember that night very well. I won the A race and he took the B race. I remember looking at the clock and saying WOW! 13.12! Who is that guy?”
“Since then, I knew he would do well,” concluded Garcia.
Two years on and Xiang didn’t just do well in his first Olympic Games, he did GREAT!
Equals World record
Blasting out of the blocks, tantalizing close to the gun, Xiang, now 21 years of age, executed a perfect technical race and stormed through the finish line in an equalling World record performance of 12.91.
One can only regret that American record holder Johnson was not in the Olympic final following his second-round fall as the race might have been even faster. In his ten years at the top of the event, Johnson now 33 years of age has been running after the World record and coming tantalizing close to improving it but never able to turn his dream into reality.
Twice he stopped the clock at 12.92, and when winning the 1996 Olympic Trials he was timed in 12.95 despite several technical mistakes. To this day, Johnson considers that race as his best and believes it would have been a World record performance had he not faltered technically.
First for China
Xiang was one who didn’t falter last night when he became the first male athlete to win an Olympic track and field gold medal for China.
When Xiang and Johnson raced each other at the Rome Golden League meeting, Johnson was given the win but the two clocked the same time and the American declared:
“Xiang has an excellent technique. He is very strong and very fast. He is so young and is very ambitious. I think he will do very well in the future.”
And although Xiang is one not likely to put himself under pressure, he was awesome in fulfilling all the expectations. He mastered the Olympic final from gun to tape, didn’t falter, pushed his efforts right to the finish and celebrated like a teenager, when the score board converted the initial 12.94 to an official 12.91.
“Before the final I knew a lot of people were expecting me to do well but I never thought I would take the gold medal. I never allowed any of those thoughts in my head,” said Xiang.
“I just wanted to perform at my best and raise my technique to the best level. I was confident that if I succeeded in doing so I would have a chance of entering the top three. The gold medal was not the least expected. It was a huge surprise for me. Just as huge a surprise as running under 13 seconds for the first time was.”
“Given the Asian physiology, few expected that a Chinese would ever be able to run under 13 seconds. I believe this is like a sort of miracle. What has happened is incredible but I will keep on working very hard in the future and you can expect more miracles to happen.”
Shortly after breaking the World Junior record two years ago Xiang had been questioned about his expectations for the future and his answer was remarkably down to earth.
“A top 8 placing in the Olympics will be great.”
Inspired by tennis-table
When he was younger, the feats of table tennis star Deng Yaping - who won gold at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics - used to inspire him and he would dream of emulating them. He opted for athletics, a choice which proved excellent.
Liu started serious training for the 110m Hurdles in 1999 and after three months, he already clocked 14.13.
“When I started to train seriously, my dad (a supervisor) was supportive. But, like most mothers I guess, my mum was against the idea. She wanted me to study. But, after I began to have some success, she came to accept my decision to be a competitive athlete. Now both my parents support me a lot.”
A semi-finalist at the Edmonton World Championships, Xiang admits his fondest memory from canada was one which came off the track.
“I admire Michael Johnson. His times for the 200m and 400m are really amazing. I’m very proud that I have taken a picture with him.”
Two bronze and one silver before Athens gold
Since, Xiang won bronze at the 2003 World Indoor Championships in Birmingham, another bronze at the Paris World Championships, and then silver in Budapest World Indoor Champs this winter. All three championships have been won by Johnson.
“I felt great pity when I saw Johnson falling. Allen is my idol and I would have liked to compete against him. He prepared very hard for these Games and I believe it mustn’t be easy for him to go out like that.”
Looking forward to Beijing 2008
Xiang came into the Olympic Games having taken his personal best and Asian record down to 13.06 – two times – and was carrying the country’s best hopes for gold. Undoubtedly he will be the centre-stage athlete when the Games move on from Athens and the build-up preparation for Beijing 2008 gets underway.
“I am very excited that the next Olympic Games will be held in China. I am confident that the Beijing Games will be the most successful ones. For sure the organisation will be one of the best.”
“As far as I am concerned, I will be 26 years old then and 26 is the optimal age for an athlete. It is a golden age and I will make sure I will not miss such a huge opportunity to perform well in my home country.”
China’s medal tally at Olympic Games counted 3 gold, 3 silver and 5 bronze medals before the Athens Olympic Games but no gold had ever been won by a male athlete let alone a male sprinter.
“In China we have excellent relationships between athlete and coach. I hope my result today will change the general attitude and it will stop people from thinking that Asians cannot be successful sprinters and hurdlers. I want Asians to be considered as good as Americans and Europeans sprinters, and I will train even harder to prove yet and again that there is plenty of talent in China.”
Laura Arcoleo for the IAAF