Familiar territory - Liu Xiang in the spotlight in Shanghai (Errol Anderson) © Copyright
Feature Shanghai, China

The pressure of nine, or the pressure of 1.3 billion? Hurdlers speak in Shanghai – Samsung Diamond League

Shanghai, ChinaLiu Xiang is a virtual certainty to make China’s Olympic team, but he will carry the expectations of 1.3 billion people to the line in London 2012.

Aries Merritt will carry few expectations other than his own if he makes the Olympic final, but he reckons he is just one of nine men who can make the U.S. Olympic team.

So who would you rather be? The question came up at the pre-Shanghai Samsung Diamond League meeting press conference on Friday (18).

Liu Xiang was able to deflect the query deftly. Technically, he has not made the team yet, so he was able to give a politician’s answer when asked which two Chinese athletes might join him in the hurdles.

"He is not sure he (will) compete," came the translation of Liu Xiang’s reply. "So he has no answer to that question."

No such luxury for Merritt. The 2012 World indoor champion had to reply.

"There is enormous pressure," Merritt said of making the team. "Nine men can make our team."

Nine more, at least, will be doubly motivated just reading that statement.

"The U.S. Olympic Trials are like the Olympics for us, in June," Merritt continued. "So you have to be ready in June, and then maintain that form until the Olympic Games."

Daegu 2011 World champion Jason Richardson and David Oliver gave similar replies.

Richardson said pressure was a "two-edged sword", with both positive and negative elements.

"But I do enjoy the motivation that comes with (the Olympic season)," he said, perhaps deflecting the pressure in his own way, "and I just want to go out and have fun."

Oliver, undefeated through 2010 before losing form last year, drew on his experience in framing his response.

"There’s always pressure to make the U.S. team," Oliver said, "but I have qualified for several teams.

"You just need to stay healthy, give it your best for three rounds over two days, and make it happen."

At times it seems that athletics in China is all about Liu Xiang. No matter how many others thrust themselves forward – the latest, sprinter Bingtian Su with his open ambition to break 10 seconds – China’s love all keeps bringing it back to Liu Xiang.

Liu Xiang last won a major at Osaka in 2007. Since then he has broken down in the Beijing Olympics (won by Dayron Robles), and the other majors have been won by Ryan Brathwaite (Berlin 2009), Robles again (2010 World indoor), Richardson (Daegu 2011) and Merritt (2012 World indoor). And Oliver had his stellar undefeated season in 2010.

Yet still most of the questions went to Liu Xiang. Some that did not go directly to him, asked him to comment indirectly on his opponents.

Now a Samsung Diamond League meeting, Shanghai has had a major athletics meeting for eight years now. One question observed that Liu Xiang had headlined it seven times out of those eight and asked how he felt about that.

"I’m happy that I can keep on competing at that high level," he replied.

"My rivals keep changing, but I’m always happy to compete against the best. New (rivals) give me motivation."

He did express the hope that more Chinese hurdles would get down near 13 seconds "to make the event even more interesting."

The Shanghai SDL race: "fierce competition"

Looking forward to the race tomorrow, Liu Xiang said that "all the US hurdlers are very competitive, so the competition will be fierce. I want to fulfil what I’ve been doing in training so I can be satisfied."

Oliver said Shanghai was usually one of the best meetings for hurdles, "so the fans can expect good performances."

Richardson, competing here for the first time, said "I love the culture and the environment and I hope it brings out a good performance," while Merritt, who leads the world this year with 13.03 seconds, hoped for a season’s best.

Liu Xiang was asked about his rivalry with Robles, especially their clash in the final in Daegu which led to the Cuban’s disqualification and Richardson’s gold medal.

He said their relationships was "even closer".

"Tough rivalry pushes you to even better performances," he said, adding that he understood Robles was experiencing some injury problems. "I hope he is better soon and we can compete together in the Olympic Games."

Like Liu Xiang, Merritt has recently adopted a seven-step approach to the first hurdle.

"It’s been very successful," Merritt said of the change. "It paved the way for a gold medal in Istanbul and a personal best (his 13.03) in Arkansas. It’s going really well."

Richardson celebrated his victory in Daegu exuberantly. Asked what might happen should he win here, he replied: "I can’t really say, I’ll just let whatever comes, come.

"It would be exciting," he added. "I might laugh, cry, even faint. I live for the moment and it will be a great moment if I win tomorrow."

Liu Xiang recently ran 13.09 to win in the Kawasaki IAAF World Challenge meeting. Asked whether predicted "drizzle" might be to his Chinese rival’s advantage, Richardson said:

"My tactic would be to run even faster, dodge the raindrops and hope that they will not hit me."

Richardson might be able to dodge the rain, but there will be no dodging the pressure in the 110m Hurdles, not in Shanghai, not at the US Trials and certainly not at the London 2012 Olympic Games.

Len Johnson for the IAAF