(Updated 11 September 2006)
LIU Xiang, China (110m hurdles)
Born: 13 July, 1983, Shanghai, 1.89m / 85kg
Coach: Sun Haiping - Personal best: 12.88 seconds
As an only child, Liu Xiang was born in Shanghai, a bustling metropolis in eastern China, on July 13, 1983 When the extended family gathered to discuss what name they should give to the baby, his aunt suggested his parents combine their surnames. This was fine idea as his mother's surname Ji means harmony in Chinese. "But it immediately occurred to me that Liu Ji in Chinese sounds like another two Chinese characters with the meaning: failure to advance to the next grade in school!" says Liu's mum, Ji Fenhua, now a retired pastry cook at the Shanghai Food Processing Factory. They finally opted for "Xiang," meaning "spreading wings to fly."
Like many children in China, Liu was cared for by his grandparents for much of his childhood because his parents were busy with their jobs. His grandmother Chen Xiubao cooked a special dish that she believed would give him the energy required to sprint down a track and leap over obstacles. Specially braised pork in brown sauce has been a favourite of the athlete ever since.
Liu's career path is a classic Chinese tale of being recruited for a sport at a young age - in Liu's case 12 - and placed in a school away from his family. Half a head taller than his peers, Liu was encouraged by his sports teachers to take up the high jump. He took classes for a half-day and trained the other half as a high jumper.
Plans changed when Liu was about 15 as his sports school asked him to give up the event because a bone test showed that he would not grow tall enough to become a world-class jumper. Mr. Sun Haiping, already a prominent hurdles coach in China, saw Liu running the hurdles at the Shanghai Sports School No. 2. "I did not project too far, but I thought, 'He fits the hurdles.' His rhythm was very good," Sun says.
Then, if not for Sun's persistence, Liu's career would probably have come to a halt. His parents withdrew him from the sports school and enrolled him in regular school. Sun lost contact for a couple months before approaching Liu about resuming training and returning to the sports school full time. A meeting was called with Liu's parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts." Over 20 of them," says Sun, 50, who spends more time with Liu than with his wife and college-age daughter. "There were big discussions. All of them didn't want him to come back. They wanted him to continue at full-time school. "Then Liu Xiang's father said, 'OK, it's settled. He should go to the sports school.' "The next day he was sent. I promised his father two things. First, I'd make sure Liu grew up as a good man of virtue. Second, I would make sure to improve his performance."
In August 2001, at 18, Liu launched his career in fine style by impressively making the semifinals at the World Championships with a personal best of 13.32 seconds. That same month, just before he left for the 21st World University Games in Beijing, tragedy struck. His grandmother was diagnosed with cancer of the pancreas. Liu was overwhelmed by the grief, but his emotions were also mixed with a burning desire to repay his grandmother's love. This debt of the heart enabled the then 18-year-old to win the 110m hurdles, a milestone in his career and a message to the world that a champion was emerging. Mr. Liu Xuegen, Liu Xiang's father, vividly remembers the day his son arrived home from the Games. "He rushed to the hospital immediately after getting off the train. He gently propped up his grandmother, tenderly hung the gold medal round her neck, and held it so that the medal would not become too heavy for his ailing grandmother," Liu Senior recalls.
Two months later, Liu was claiming his second major win at the 9th National Games in Guangzhou, a city in southern China. A day before he was due to return home, he received news that his grandma had died during the Games. Though she had been ill for some time, her death still came as a shock for Liu. Devastated by deep sorrow, Liu swore that from then on, he would do his best to win every competition.
In 2002, Liu raced to victory in the 110m hurdles at the IAAF Grand Prix in Lausanne with a World Junior and Asian record time of 13.12 seconds, breaking Renaldo Nehemiah's 24-year-old World Junior record. The following year he earned a bronze medal at the World Championships in Athletics in Paris and projected himself as a medal contender for the 2004 Olympics, although he was not considered a favourite for the gold. However, in the final, Liu's technique was nearly perfect as he barely touched the sixth hurdle and cleared all of the others cleanly. He powered to an emphatic victory of almost three metres and tied the 11-year-old World record of 12.91 seconds held by Colin Jackson. At the 2005 World Championships in Helsinki Ladji Doucouré of France edged past Liu to win gold, but Liu's second place is still the best result yet by a Chinese male athlete at World Championships.
This year, Liu skipped a number of major competitions due to injuries and re-adjustment and won only twice before his recording-breaking performance in Lausanne. He made perfect debut in 2006 with success at the Osaka Grand Prix on May 6. His second major title came one month later at the Prefontaine Classic in the United States.
Then came the miracle Liu promised less than two years ago in Athens. As his legs pumping with flawless precision to clock a World record time of 12.88 seconds at the IAAF Super Grand Prix meeting in Lausanne, Liu Xiang consolidated his status as world's fastest hurdler.
Liu Xiang then went home to China to take part in the national championships in August, and only returned to Europe for the World Athletics Final, where he ran a scorching 12.93 on the track where Colin Jackson had set the World record which Liu Xiang first equalled then claimed for himself alone. The Chinese hurdler now owns 3 of the top 10 all-time performances over the high hurdles.
In China, Liu has become a popular pitchman. He adorns outdoor advertising boards — promoting ing everything from cigarettes and soft drinks to clothing — and can incite a near-riot by appearing in public. Liu is a millionaire who shares a two-bedroom suite with his coach at a Shanghai training centre. Liu's agent, Mark Wetmore, says Liu keeps about 70% of his track earnings and more than 70% of his endorsement fees. The remainder of the money goes to the national track federation and Shanghai sports system that has nurtured him since he was about 12. Back home, Liu is beloved for his natural persona, in marked contrast to most of China's other elite athletes, who can only offer their fans canned statements about how much they love their motherland.
China has won more than 100 Olympic gold medals since 1984. But nothing could compare to Liu's triumph. It was Liu who received the lion's share of the spoils - and the pressure to top that performance when the Olympics come to Beijing that goes with it.
Progression: 1999 – 14.19 ; 2000 – 13.75 ; 2001 – 13.32 ; 2002 – 13.12 (WJR) ; 2003 – 13.17 ; 2004 – 12.91 (WR=) ; 2005 – 13.05 ; 2006 – 12.88 (WR)
1st 110mH World University Games Beijing, China
1st 110mH Asian Championships Manila, Philippines
1st 110mH Asian Games Busan, South Korea
3rd 110mH World Championships Paris, France
3rd 60mH World Indoor Championships Birmingham, England
1st 110mH Olympic Games Athens, Greece.
2nd 60mH World Indoor Championships Budapest, Hungary
2nd 110mH World Championships Helsinki, Finland
1st 110mH World Athletics Final Stuttgart, Germany
Prepared by Xiaoxian Yan for the IAAF Focus on Athletes project. © IAAF 2006.