The Olympic 110m Hurdles champion and World record holder was at Friday’s press conference ahead of the 2013 Shanghai IAAF Diamond League; so, too, the World champion, along with one of China’s emerging hurdlers.
The Olympic women’s 100m champion was sitting alongside them. But despite all that, an inordinate amount of time was spent talking about those who were not there.
Absent friends, so to speak, absent friends by the names of Liu Xiang, Carmelita Jeter and even football’s superstar David Beckham.
It would be misleading to suggest the three luminaries dominated proceedings, but Aries Merritt, Jason Richardson and Xie Wenjun spent a lot of time talking about Liu’s absence from the men’s 110m Hurdles on Saturday night (18).
Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce likewise spent a fair amount of time talking about Carmelita Jeter’s presence in the women’s 100m, a titanic battle to set the scene for what lies ahead this year.
As for David Beckham, whose retirement from football was announced yesterday, well he got short shrift. Richardson commented: “I’ve never spoken to David Beckham, I’ve never seen David Beckham but it is my hope one day to be like David Beckham.”
Merritt was even blunter, echoing Richardson’s experiences on never meeting, nor seeing the soccer star during his time with LA Galaxy, but admitting that he would like to be like him one day.
As for Fraser-Pryce and Xie, they just looked relieved the question had been exhausted before they were asked to comment.
Rivals hopeful of Liu’s return
The emphasis on Liu was not so hard to fathom. After all, the 2004 Olympic champion ran a sensational 12.97 world lead in the Shanghai meeting last year, the seventh time in eight Shanghai meetings he had produced the star turn. His breakdown at the London Olympics and subsequent setbacks in rehabilitation have led to speculation that his career might be over.
Not so, Jason Richardson hopes. “I’m not sure when Liu Xiang will be back,” Richardson said when all three hurdlers were questioned about his absence.
“But he has been one of the premier hurdlers for more than a decade and, god willing, he will come back.
“Our event has been taken to another level,” Richardson continued. “There is always someone new emerging. Last year it was definitely Aries (Merritt), in 2011 you could say it was me. You never know whose year this is going to be.”
Merritt, whose Olympic win and sensational World record of 12.80 did as much as anything could to reach the new level, spoke more of Liu’s absence from the Shanghai meeting.
“I believe Liu being out is a blow. Because he is Chinese, he adds something different to the game. It gives the event more variety. Dayron (Robles) retiring hurts as well.
“The last time Liu came back he was able to go sub-13 after his injury. His level of determination is up to him.”
Xie saw a positive angle, saying Liu’s absence gave others a chance to shine.
“With Aries Merritt and Jason Richardson here we can expect a lot of excitement,” Xie said. “China has a lot of top hurdlers, not just Liu Xiang. They want to show they are talented and can achieve great results, too.”
Xie’s parents were both athletic, his mother a sprinter and his father swimming and playing volleyball. He describes himself as “shy”, compared to Liu.
“Liu Xiang is more out there, more outspoken – I don’t know if this is the right word, but can I say more aggressive.”
Merritt’s technical changes
Merritt’s 2012 triumphs came on the back of his switching to a seven-step approach to the first hurdle. Told that Liu had said he practised for starting off the ‘wrong’ leg by putting his ‘wrong’ leg first into his trousers, Merritt said he also had made changes to accommodate the switch to his weaker leg.
“It was nerve-wracking,” he admitted. “You go off your weaker leg after spending all your life going off the other. So you’ve got to work to get the same power in that leg.”
That meant starting with his off-leg first in every drill he did, every repetition he ran until it became as natural as possible.
Richardson said that he, too, was making changes to improve.
“(Coach) John Smith and I have spoken about the World record and where we can see it going. We think it will go under 12.8.
“We’ve always had a focus on change, on trying new things. Aries showed you could do it, and I suppose I copied Robles’ lean in 2011. We’ve got to learn from each other, push each other. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the world record go lower this year or next.”
Jeter spurs Fraser-Pryce
Fraser-Pryce may be a dual Olympic champion and a former World champion at 100m, but she too is pushed along by her opposition, chiefly Carmelita Jeter, her main opponent in the 100m here.
“Having Carmelita there, you know you have to perform. It raises the level of the game.”
Jeter has been having that impact ever since she ran 10.64 here in Shanghai back in 2009, said Fraser-Pryce.
“Sprinting for women has been in the same time region – Carmelita’s 10.64 aside – for a while now.
“That’s where I want to go, too. She raised her game and ran 10.64. I want to run that or even lower. I want to step up a notch.”
Fraser-Pryce won the 200m at the Doha Diamond League meeting last Friday and is keen to find out what her focus on the longer event will mean for the short sprint.
“I’m excited about the times I’ve been running (in the 200m). Doha, and 22.37 in Jamaica – it’s forever since I ran that fast.
“(Shanghai) should give me a gauge of where I am over 100m and where I am as far as the rest of the season goes.
“I just want to execute well and put a good race together.”
Len Johnson for the IAAF