Liu Xiang winning from lane 9 (!) in Osaka (Getty Images) © Copyright
General News Osaka, Japan

Osaka 2007 - Men's 110m Hurdles: Liu Xiang - the pressure of national expectations

With his victory in Osaka’s Nagai Stadium Xiang Liu finally added a World championships 110m Hurdles gold medal to his growing collection of hardware. That the 2004 Olympic champion was able to secure this from lane 9 - a rather lonely region of Nagai Stadium - speaks volumes of his ability to concentrate.

Being so isolated he was unsure whether he had captured China’s first gold medal at these championships until he had crossed the line in 12.95 seconds. Terrence Trammell was closest at 12.99 seconds.

“I realised I won at the last moment,” Liu told the post event press conference. “I was nervous pretty much before the race because everyone pays attention and everyone puts so much emphasis on the World Championships including myself. I ran as fast as I could from the start to the very end. After the race was over I realised I had won. Until the very last moment I just didn’t know I won.”

“I might have lost some time because I looked around just before the finish line and in the beginning the starting speed was not too satisfactory for me mainly because I was a bit too nervous and too tired before the start. I felt some fatigue.”

Xiang’s name means “spreading wings to fly” and after his gold medal performance he donned a red shirt with Chinese symbols on it. He was asked what the symbols meant and he explained a representative of his shoe company sponsor had tossed the t -shirt to him on the track. It meant ‘give me one more wing”

Born and raised in Shanghai he’s a veritable icon in China where he cannot go out in public without drawing a crowd. And he is especially revered for the manner in which he conducts himself with the Chinese people. He gives a significant amount of his earnings from endorsements (his face is on advertising billboards pitching everything from clothing and soft drinks to cigarettes), appearance fees and prize money to the national track federation and the Shanghai sports system which has helped him since the age of 12.

After breaking the World record outright in 2006 with a time of 12.88 seconds he donated the shoes he wore on that occasion to a charity auction to raise money for rural children’s education. All these gestures are the stuff of legends.

The national media filled the first few rows of the press conference room in Nagai stadium and flashbulbs were going off continuously at his every uttering. And when the master of ceremonies announced the conference was over his young admirers rushed the platform.  Xiang calmly pulled up a chair turned it around backwards and straddled it and remained seated so that he could ensure they had everything they needed.

He claims not to speak English. But he evidently understands more than he is willing to let on. And when a Chinese journalist offered to translate questions asked by an Anglophone journalist it was evident he understood the questions. He was ready to discuss the pressure he feels in his homeland.

“Nowadays there is too much pressure,” he said, “the others just have to hide but I am number one in the world I get a gold medal and I get championships so now, next year the Olympics, it is expected.”

“Today before the race I just stayed in my hotel room. Every time I go out it is pressure on me, I don’t get good sleep.”

When he rose to leave it was clearly understood that there were to be no more questions. The reverence felt was quite palpable.

“Nowadays I have a lot of titles it’s maybe the best for me. All my dreams have come true,” he said.

Paul Gains for the IAAF