Liu Xiang - a side view of the World record breaker as he runs in Lausanne (AFP / Getty Images) © Copyright
General News Rome, Italy

Nehemiah on Liu Xiang – what makes the 12.88 World record package?

The athletics world is abuzz with news and discussion about the magical evening of competition which took place in Lausanne, Switzerland, last night.

Click here for the Lausanne meeting report

While tempered by some disappointment that Liu Xiang will not run in this Friday’s Rome Golden Gala - perhaps because the 22-year-old is either still floating so high or perhaps to the contrary is emotionally fatigued by his miraculous 12.88 second World 110m Hurdles record - that Lausanne performance remained enthusiastically on everyone’s lips this afternoon as the world’s athletic circuit flew into the Italian capital for the next stop of the 2006 IAAF World Athletics Tour season.

USA’s Renaldo Nehemiah knows a thing or two about sprint hurdling, after all nearly 25 years ago he was setting his third global mark at the 110m Hurdles with his 12.93 World record in Zurich (19 August 1981). The 47-year-old also knows a thing or two about speed, as he is the agent of World and Olympic 100m champion Justin Gatlin, the joint holder of the World record for that flat sprint.

Incidentally, Olympic champion Liu Xiang's improvement on the 12.91 World record which he had shared with Britain's Colin Jackson, sliced the biggest margin from the high hurdles record since Nehemiah lowered his own mark by 0.07 (13.00 to 12.93) to become the first sub-13 runner in history.

In total, Nehemiah, who relinquished his amateur status and became a professional NFL footballer and was a member of the 1984 Super Bowl winning San Francisco 49ers side, reduced the World record by a staggering 0.28 seconds in his athletics career. His first mark of 13.16 on 14 April 1979 bettered Cuban Alejandro Casanas' 13.21 (21 Aug 1977) record, then he reduced that to 13.00 on 6 May 1979, before diving down to 12.93 in 1981.

So how did Nehemiah, who sped to a 12.91 (+3.5m/s) windy clocking as far back as 1979, and was able to run 13.19 legal (-0.4m/s) as near to today as 1991, some up Liu Xiang and his performance last night?

“About time”

Beginning with more general comments on the way the event had progressed or perhaps failed to progress since his retirement, Nehemiah’s honest appraisal was that it was "about time" that the 12.88 World record had come.

“I was running 12.91 wind assisted 27-years-ago, and it is only yesterday that the (wind legal) record has gone below that….The Hurdles are more forgiving these days, so you can really hit them during a race, even run through them. Back then (1980s) they were solid wood (cross bars) and you dared not hit one as it would break your ankle open.”

“What last night’s race shows, with only two men going under 13 seconds (Dominique Arnold in 12.90, also under the old world record, was the other athlete) is just how hard sub-13 is to run.”

Not too much flat speed

But specifically what is the key to Liu Xiang’s success as a hurdler?

“He is technically sound. His basic flat speed is not as good as the other guys which means that he can race the hurdles at his top speed without fear of going too fast. He is able to relax, not worrying about going too fast, and can just concentrate on his technique, clearing the hurdles low.”

“His opponents are much quicker flat sprinters but that speed is a disadvantage for them.”

“For example Terrence Trammell is a much faster sprinter but he never gets to use that extra speed to his advantage while hurdling.”

The big men have always to adjust their speed because they try to go too fast and by mid-race the hurdles start to come too quick on them for them to cope and hurdle cleanly.

“And that problem is made even worse when you have a tailwind like you did in Lausanne (+1.1m/s) as the faster men find themselves being pushed on to the hurdles. So they have to make continual adjustments to their speed.”

“They are just too fast, and this speed works against them. Too much speed killed Arnold, Doucouré and the rest yesterday.”

By contrast “Liu Xiang can use his full velocity in a race, he doesn’t have to make any adjustment, and so can concentrate on staying low over the barriers.” He has learnt to “shuffle perfectly” between the hurdles.

However, “add another half a yard in the space between the barriers” and the balance would go back in the favour of the men with faster flat speed. “They would be unstoppable.”

Phenomenal flexibility

Liu Xiang is also physically the near perfect human specimen for the sprint hurdles.

“Xiang’s body is phenomenally flexible. You have to be to be able to react to the hurdle." His flexibility is such that "he must be able to do a Russian split, and as I understand he has a good gymnastic base to his fitness, which is what I had too.”

1.89m high, weighing 82kg, the athlete from Shanghai, has “a long body frame but short legs.” Therefore it is easier for him to negotiate his smaller legs over the hurdles," unlike more leggy man like Arnold and Trammell. “All this is done by having extremely flexible hips,” concluded Nehemiah.

Chris Turner for the IAAF