Was this an ominous case of déjà vu? On July 14, with little more than 10 days to go before the start of the Summer Olympics, China’s 110 m hurdling sensation Liu Xiang pulled out of the final of the London Grand Prix, an Olympic tune-up meet. Four years ago, as the expectations of a nation rested on his shoulders, the former world champion executed a similar last-minute no-show at the Beijing Games. Just seconds before his race was set to begin in the Chinese capital’s iconic Bird’s Nest Stadium, Liu limped off the track, no longer able to conceal an Achilles tendon injury that had dogged him for years. Millions upon millions of Chinese had blithely assumed he would win the country’s first home-turf medal in one of the glamor short-distance track events. Instead, Liu blinked back tears and left a nation stunned.
On Saturday, Liu’s longtime coach Sun Haiping assured anxious supporters back in China that the hurdler’s decision not to race in the Grand Prix event was due to a minor back twinge that would not compromise his participation in the Olympics. Caution prevailed in the run-up to the London Games, said Sun, to ensure that Liu’s body would not be unduly taxed before the August 8 Olympics 110 m hurdle final. The July 14 event was won instead by the U.S.’ Aries Merritt, who matched his own season’s best time of 12.93 seconds. Two other Americans, Jason Richardson and Ryan Wilson, rounded out the medal count.
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A gold medalist at the 2004 Athens Games, where he made history as the first Chinese male to win a track and field Olympic event, Liu knows he still must exorcise the demons of his failure to race in Beijing four years ago. Granted, now that the Games are no longer being held in his homeland, the now 29-year-old Shanghai native is under less of a burden to, as he said with startling candor in 2004, prove “that athletes with yellow skin can run as fast as those with black and white skins.” (Eight years ago, Wei Hongquan, an official with China’s State General Administration of Sport told me, with all seriousness: “Asians are not as inherently talented in sports that require speed, energy and power.”)
After the Beijing Games, Liu disappeared from competition for more than a year, letting his overworked body recover. After a few rebuilding seasons, he blazed down the comeback trail in 2011, winning silver in the World Championships. Then at the Prefontaine Classic in June, he struck gold with a time of 12.87 seconds. That equaled the world record, but was not entered into the books because a slight tail wind added fuel to his race. Not bad for a 29-year-old who many feared was as good as finished four years ago.
Liu’s strength has always been his superlative technique, an ability to pare down hurdling to its most essential motions. The way to London—through devastating injury, races of redemption and even a brief diversion into China’s rubber-stamp politics—has hardly been as streamlined. Still, as long as he ends up back on the Olympic medals podium on Aug. 8, his circuitous path won’t matter to his rabid fans back home. For a man whose given name means “to fly,” China’s expectations are soaring once more.