Athletics-Liu raises expectations with best time in five years

Reuters

Sat, 19 May 19:19:00 2012

Liu Xiang gave his home town a timely reminder of what a fine high hurdler he can be with his fastest race in five years at the Shanghai Diamond League meeting on Saturday. He might live to regret it.

In a flawless 110 metres, the 28-year-old Chinese soared over the hurdles and scampered across the line to beat a quality field in 12.97 seconds - his best time since he ran 12.95 to win world championship gold in August 2007.

Five years of injury-filled anguish have followed that triumph in Osaka and in that time Liu has relinquished the world title, world record and most dramatically the Olympic title when he limped out of the heats in Beijing in 2008.

Liu's race on Saturday was all the more impressive given the wet and windy conditions and his delight was clear as he cavorted around the track shirtless, accepting the wild applause of 40,000 of his fellow Shanghainese.

"I've always been confident, to run under 13 seconds is a great result and I'm very excited," he told reporters.

"I made no mistakes, the execution went very well from the start to the finish. It was very good.

"Tonight my execution was very, very good. I hope I can keep my form and pay attention to the details so I can perform well in future races."

Such a performance on home soil will, of course, ratchet up the expectation on him to regain the Olympic title in London later this year and at the news conference he was immediately faced with questions about whether he could break the world record.

Liu has been forced to become accustomed to such expectations since he became China's first male Olympic champion on the track at the 2004 Olympics.

"After I came back from Athens I started to get used to the pressure, there has always been pressure, I don't care about pressure," he said.

"I just want to devote myself to hurdling and I try to enjoy it. Hurdling is part of my life. Everyone faces pressure, the trick is to control it."

At his best, Liu is a supreme technician but he has long had to accept that the foot injury that ruled him out of his home Olympics four years ago will always hamper him.

BLOWN AWAY

He showed only glimpses of his pre-2008 form last year but would probably have won gold at the world championships had Olympic champion Dayron Robles not made contact with him over the last two hurdles.

The beneficiary that night in Daegu was Jason Richardson and the world champion finished third on Saturday behind Liu and David Oliver but in front of another compatriot in Aries Merritt - a rising hurdles talent.

Liu will be boosted by beating the trio of top class American hurdlers ahead of his meeting with Robles in Eugene, Oregon early next month.

Liu said his relationship with the Cuban, who holds the world record of 12.87 seconds, had, if anything, become stronger since Daegu but he views him as one of many challengers.

"I saw on the internet that he has decided to go to Eugene and I'm really looking forward to racing him there," he said.

"I believe each top hurdler is competitive, he is just one of them. I don't have any particular strategy for any one rival."

On Friday, Liu had tried to dampen the expectations of his compatriots by saying that just making it to a third Olympics was an achievement in itself.

His long-time coach and mentor Sun Haiping also appealed for perspective when he spoke to reporters before the meeting.

"It is very difficult because of his age, his speed of recovery, and his old injuries," he said. "We can't train like he was 20 years old.

"We train less intensively than before because of the reality. His competitors are strong. We have our difficulties and people are expecting so much of us. We will do our best."

Any good such comments might have had in reducing expectation will have been blown away by the sight of Liu in full flight on Saturday.

Oliver described Liu as "a helluva athlete" and neither he nor Richardson were surprised by his performance.

Richardson, who might yet fail to make the U.S. team for London because of the strength in depth the country has in the event, was also mightily impressed by the passion of the crowd.

"What was surprising was to see an entire country get behind one athlete," he said. "I tip my hat to the Chinese and I wish we had a bit more of that in America."

 

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