Mutual respect between athletes is a beautiful thing to behold. On the eve of last year’s Samsung Diamond League meeting in Shanghai, Chinese icon Liu Xiang sat next to Usain Bolt at a press event and these two Olympic champions, both of whom knew what it was to have their career put on hold by injury, exchanged sincere admiration and good wishes for future health.
A year on, Liu Xiang sat at the same podium alongside the other marquee name at tomorrow’s Dunlop Shanghai Golden Grand Prix fellow 110m hurdler David Oliver. And the same heart-warming dynamic was evident.
Dunlop Shanghai Golden Grand Prix is the second of 14 meetings of the 2011 Samsung Diamond League
In broad terms, despite being still only 27, Liu Xiang is still striving to reach the heights he achieved as the all-conquering Olympic and World champion before an Achilles tendon injury laid waste his hopes of defending his title at the 2008 Beijing Games.
By contrast Oliver, despite his own serious injury setback in 2009, has arrived at the 2011 outdoor season as the World’s pre-eminent high hurdler, his form throughout the previous year leaving him unbeaten outdoors and with a new personal best of 12.89sec, only 0.01sec off Liu Xiang’s former World record.
Since winning a third consecutive Asian Games title last November, Liu has worked on taking seven, rather than eight strides to the first hurdle – a technique which has been employed by other top hurdlers, including Oliver and the third musketeer-of-the-moment, Cuba’s World record holder Dayron Robles.
Towards the end of a press conference where each had shared jokey asides with the other, Liu Xiang commented, with the hint of a grin, that he wished Oliver, who warmed up for this meeting with a victory in Daegu in 13.13sec, could stay in Shanghai longer so he could learn from him.
At which point the burly resident of Orlando, Florida grew serious.
“Liu doesn’t need to learn anything from me,” Oliver said. “He’s already been where I’m trying to go. He’s got the gold medals and the world record. That’s something I haven’t achieved yet.”
Then Liu Xiang, patting him on his mighty shoulder, insisted with more than a hint of that grin: “You will have them. Be patient!”
Nice. But let’s be real here. These two didn’t get where they are today on mutual admiration alone. Throughout the conference there was elite demonstration of mind games between these two rivals.
“My biggest mission tomorrow is to keep up with the pace of David,” Liu Xiang announced. “If I don’t arrive too much behind him the result of my performance will not be too bad. So I haven’t thought of overtaking him tomorrow.”
David wasn’t so sure about that.
“I expect that Liu will probably be ready to run about 13 flat,” he said. “I always think when I see him at a race that he is ready to run sub 13 so I have to be extra ready to perform whenever he’s in the field. So I guess I have to run much better than I did in Daegu the other day.”
Liu Xiang admitted that it was partly the example of Oliver which had prompted him to experiment with his start.
“I just want to give this a trial because a lot of hurdlers have tried this method. I don’t expect it to give me much improvement. But considering that I am quite tall – almost 1.90m – if I am to control my first eight steps, some of them have to be quite small.”
“I’m not an athlete that does very well in the first half of the 110m hurdles, even though I have also done quite well indoors at 60m hurdles, where I was World champion and have a best of 6.42.”
“What I want to focus on is the speed over the first three to five hurdles. I know David and Dayron used to take eight steps to the first hurdle and they changed to seven in the past years. I took longer to realise that it might work better for me.”
However, the changes have not been without their difficulties.
“It is only three months for me to have tried to get used to running seven steps to the first hurdle,” Liu Xiang added. “Over the first three hurdles, using seven steps takes me longer than eight steps when I was at my peak. But it’s just a trial. If I encounter too much difficulty I may change back to eight. Or maybe sometimes I will use seven, sometimes eight. We will see.”
Part of the awkwardness in adjusting has been down to the need to alter his starting position.
“I met some difficulties because I had to make the change with my blocks,” he said. “Previously I had my right foot in front, but to run seven strides I have to have my left foot in front. When I use seven strides I have to make sure to give more power to my stride, I have to be faster.”
“I am so accustomed to the eight-strides start that I don’t have to think about it. Using seven strides, I have to be focused, I have to tell myself ‘don’t worry, don’t panic’. If other competitors are using eight strides I have to tell myself ‘you go at your own pace, focus on yourself, or maybe you’re going to be interrupted by them.’”
Oliver listened respectfully. But when asked by a local journalist if he would be offering help to the local hero, the grin returned.
“I will not give Liu Xiang any suggestions to make him run faster than me!” he responded. Mutual respect has its limits.
Mike Rowbottom for the Samsung Diamond League