When in Shanghai, Liu’s life is far different from the glamorous one portrayed in his billboard ads and television commercials. Government sports officials negotiate his endorsements and, according to his father, take half the earnings. His parents oversee Liu’s half of the pot, and if he indulges himself, he does so inconspicuously. He bought an apartment in his old Shanghai neighborhood, but renovations are still underway. His family lives in a suburban apartment provided by the government as a reward for his Athens gold medal. Liu lives with them on weekends and spends his weekdays inside Shanghai’s top sports training center. On weekends, his coach is not far away; he owns an apartment in the same complex. They can literally see each other through their windows.
“I go home, and I go to the training facility,” Liu said, describing his routine. “Two places. And those two places are the safest for me.”
In China, he is almost always accompanied by coaches or officials. Though he endorses Cadillac, he cannot drive — he has not been permitted to get a license. His isolation is a product of the sports system but also a symptom of his celebrity. In Shanghai, at least five daily newspapers and one television station have assigned reporters to cover him. He likes eating Japanese food and shopping, at least when he is abroad. He has a taste for designer clothes. “He is always very happy to travel abroad,” says Feng Shuyong, the amiable head coach of China’s track team. “There are fewer people who know him. He can go shopping. He likes shopping.”
He loves to sing karaoke. (“I know all the Chinese songs,” he told us.) But when he goes out, his coaches sneak him into a club and later shuttle him out a back door. He keeps in touch with friends by e-mail or text message. “He wants to be normal,” Feng says. “Sometimes, I think: He is a young man. He wants to do many things, but he cannot. I feel sorry for him. Many times he is alone in his room, chatting on the Internet with friends.
“But at the same time,” Feng adds, “I appreciate that he has targeted the Olympic Games. For this target, he has sacrificed so many things.”
Our day in Liu Xiang’s life ended with one telling observation: he was favoring his right hamstring. The next day he flew to New York for the Reebok Grand Prix, posing for photographs atop the Empire State Building, but he dropped out of the meet, citing the injury. He then traveled to Eugene, Ore., to run in the Prefontaine Classic, the biggest track meet in the United States and an event sponsored by Nike. He said the hamstring was fine. But he was disqualified on a false start.
Then, on June 12, Dayron Robles exploded out of the blocks at the Golden Spike competition in the Czech Republic. Robles, a Cuban, is considered the most physically gifted hurdler alive, exactly the type of athlete amplified in the Chinese imagination. He ripped over the hurdles in a shocking 12.87 seconds. Liu’s world record was history. Robles was still breathing heavily, exultant, when a television reporter pressed forward with a question: Can you beat Liu Xiang in the Olympics? “We will see,” was Robles’s answer.
In Beijing, Liu was gracious and offered congratulations. He and Robles are friendly rivals. But only 57 days remained until the Olympics, and Liu Xiang was suddenly an underdog.
Twelve men have run the 110-meter hurdles in less than 13 seconds. Only two, Liu and Robles, have dipped below 12.90 seconds.
The hurdles lack the sex appeal of the 100-meter dash, but the event is a premier Olympic attraction because of its combination of speed, power and grace — and its potential for calamity.
The best hurdlers need about 38 steps to leave the blocks, navigate 10 hurdles and reach the finish line 110 meters away. To watch a race is to suffer the illusion that you are seeing men running at top speed while jumping at the same time. You are really seeing them attempt to solve a complex physics equation without crashing.
“In hurdles, you never actually get to maximum speed,” says Curtis Frye, one of the top hurdling coaches in the United States. “Every time you get near it, you’ve got to jump in the air. It’s not as much about speed as it is about mechanics.”