Osaka Notes, Day Seven-by Mary Nicole Nazzaro

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In today's column, Mary Nicole writes on Liu Xiang, his victory on Friday night and it signifigance. For the next year, Liu Xiang carries the mantle of favorite, and the aspirations of over two billion Chinese....

Osaka Notes
By Mary Nicole Nazzaro
Day 7: Friday, August 31, 2007

Friday night headline out of Osaka: Liu Xiang did it.

China's poster boy for the 2008 Olympics is the world champion in the men's 110-meter hurdles. Tonight in Osaka, Liu clocked 12.95 to edge American Terrence Trammell by four hundredths of a second. Fellow American David Payne finished a Cinderella story of a competition by notching the bronze medal in a personal best 13.02.

But the night belonged to Liu, who in five years has broken the junior world record, the senior world record, won Olympic gold, and now owns a complete set of world championships medals: bronze in 2003, silver in 2005, and gold in 2007.

Now it's time to start asking the big questions.

Is Liu Xiang the best hurdler of his generation? It's starting to look like it. Is he the best 110-meter hurdler ever? Could be – if he wins gold next year in Beijing. Is he a once-in-a-lifetime athlete? Many would say so – especially China observers, who know firsthand that Liu is an athletic phenomenon in his home country.

But other questions remain as well. Can he really take on the pressure of the next year of his life, where he will be the single most scrutinized athlete at the Beijing Olympics, and bring home back to back Olympic gold medals for his home country? Only two athletes have ever repeated as Olympic champions in the men's 110-meter hurdles, and they were both Americans: Roger Kingdom in 1984 and 1988, and Lee Calhoun in 1956 and 1960.

After last night you have to think that Liu Xiang might just pull it off.

Renaldo Nehemiah, who owned that junior world record until Liu took it from him in 2002, already says Liu is one of the best in history, that his hurdling form is perfect. Nehemiah has never seen a hurdler who never hits hurdles before Liu. In Osaka tonight, Liu uncharacteristically knocked down his ninth hurdle and grazed a few others earlier in the race, but it was no matter.

Even more impressively, he did it from lane 9. Dayron Robles, who should have been in it for the medals after a spectacular season of his own, had Trammell to tee off of, running in lanes 4 and 5, respectively. David Payne's quick start could have meant that he would have blocked Liu's vision just enough to keep him from seeing where Trammell was in the race.

None of it mattered. Liu ran a perfect race.

The strangest detail from the evening? Only 20,000 people turned out to see it. Osaka is only a short flight from China, but there wasn't a critical mass of Chinese fans in the crowd, just one section of fans near the finish line waving Chinese flags and cheering "Jia you!" – the universal Chinese sports cheer which loosely translated to "Rev it up! Let's go!" Afterwards many of those fans made their way to the television interview area just below the stands at the finish line, calling lustily to Liu to look up for photos. Liu obliged with his megawatt smile, clearly elated and relieved that the biggest competition of 2007 was in the books.

Next year may be different. Terrence Trammell promises it will be so. So does four-time world champion and 1996 Olympic gold medalist Allen Johnson, who said this afternoon that if he was healthy next year, he would be a lock for the Olympic team. And he is as prepared as anyone to give Liu Xiang a run for his money in Beijing.

Liu Xiang is the world champion. He will have a bullseye on his back for the next year. What that will mean for his performance in Beijing, only time can tell. But what an astonishing athlete, and what a joy to have been there to see him run a perfect race on the biggest stage in the world.

--
M. Nicole Nazzaro
The China Sports Blog: http://chinasports.wokpopcorn.com

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