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Guangzhou, ChinaThose unfamiliar with Chinese athletics and its heroes might have been surprised by the stream of people lining up at the Olympic Stadium on Thursday (12) evening.
Crowds were at a premium the past two days at the 18th Asian Athletics Championships when China had all but decimated the opposition to take a commanding lead at the top of the medals table. But Thursday had to be different.
It was the day 2004 Olympic champion Liu Xiang was to compete. More than 30,000 spectators turned up eventually in time to catch a glimpse of their hero crossing the hurdles just past 10 pm, in the rain. They were screaming and clapping every time his name was announced or he took a step.
In the end, they joined him in singing the Chinese National Anthem with him on the podium. Where else but the No. 1 position in the 110m Hurdles. His winning time of 13.50 seconds was rather ordinary by his standards. But no one cared; what was important was they had to see him compete and see him win.
Win he did with the expected ease of a champion. Liu eased up at the finish, not risking anything on a cold, rainy day.
“If someone clocks 13.60 in the final, he will finish within 13.40,” Liu’s coach Sun Haiping had forecast on Wednesday. There was no need for Liu to exert.
China takes five more gold
It was yet another day of Chinese domination: five gold medals out of the seven at stake. The ones to elude the host were the steeplechase titles. Tarek Mubarak Taher of Bahrain took the men’s gold while Japanese Yoshika Tatsumi won the women’s crown.
The women’s steeplechase was the only event in which a Chinese did not win a medal on this day. Two relatively unknown Indians, Sudha Singh and Kiran Tiwari denied the host the satisfaction of picking up at least a medal in each of the events. The crowds, eagerly looking forward to Liu Xiang’s entry, did egg Fang Xiaoyu on but in the end she had to be satisfied with the fourth place.
There was never any doubt about Liu’s victory. The timing might have mattered but after two false starts and one disqualification - Saudi Arabian Ahmed Khalde Almuwallad - nothing much could have been expected, though, especially with the rains pounding. Chinese Shi Dongpeng, a finalist at the 2003 and 2007 World Championships, took his customary silver in 13.67 seconds.
Long after Liu had left the stadium, the fans were talking about him. If only fate had willed it otherwise at the Beijing Olympics! He had then limped off in front of home fans, dashing the hopes of a billion, an Achilles injury wrecking his Olympic dreams.
Nothing mattered of course today; just a glimpse of him and the sight of him crossing the finish line first.
It was not all Liu Xiang on Thursday. Well before he came on the scene, China had asserted itself again for the third day running. The gold-silver collection by the walkers, Li Jianbo and Chu Yafei, in the morning in a rain-hampered 20km event, was followed by victories in the men’s Long Jump and women’s Pole Vault and javelin, apart from Liu Xiang’s.
Twenty-year-old Li Jinzhe, silver winner at the National Games in Jinan, last month, jumped 8.16m on his fifth attempt to clinch the gold. He in fact had led from the third round with an 8.02m. No one else crossed eight metres.
Three-time Asian champion Hussein Taher Al-Sabee of Saudi Arabia had to settle for the silver at 7.96m while Yu Zhenwei, another Chinese, took the bronze on a countback, tying with Al-Sabee.
Liu Chunhua and Li Lingwei made it another one-two for China in women’s Javelin Throw while Li Caixia won the women’s Pole Vault gold, at 4.30m, with team-mate Wu Sha providing the silver at 4.15m.
The best of efforts of steeplechaser Lin Xiangqian could not unsettle Tarek Mubarak Taher, the former Kenyan who represents Bahrain. It came down to a last-lap duel in which Taher, the Doha Asian Games champion, had so much in reserve that he could just toy with the opposition.
Taher, who figured in the World Championships finals in 2007 (eighth) and this year (10th) and also in the Beijing Olympic Games (11th), speeded up on the final back straight, stepped up further when the Chinese began to make a move nearing the last water jump and cruised through the home straight.
As he neared the finish, Taher had time enough to glance sideways to see what the commotion was all about, for, the crowd was getting wild. That was for Lin overtaking Qatari Ali Abubaker Kamal with 50 metres left for the finish. Taher clocked 8:33.58, Lin had a season best 8:34.13 and Kamal 8:34.73.
China dropped the baton in the women’s 4x100m relay heats, picked it up and ran and finished third in the official results in a four-team heat when Sri Lanka dropped its baton on the anchor. In the unfolding drama, however, it was announced after some time that China had been disqualified for an exchange zone violation.
By an IAAF Correspondent
Men: 3000m steeplechase: 1. Tarek Mubarak Taher (Brn) 8:33.58, 2. Lin Xiangqian (Chn) 8:43.13, 3. Ali Abubaker Kamal (Qat) 8:34.73.
110m hurdles: 1. Liu Xiang (Chn) 13.50, 2. Shi Dongpeng (Chn) 13.67, 3. Park Tae-Kyong (Kor) 13.72.
Long jump: 1. Li Jinzhe (Chn) 8.16, 2. Hussein Taher Al-Sabee (KSA) 7.96, 3. Yu Zhenwei (Chn) 7.96.
20km walk: 1. Li Jianbo (Chn) 1:22:55, 2. Chu Yafei (Chn) 1:22:56, 3. Park Chil-Sung (Kor) 1:24:51.