domingo, 18 de marzo de 2012

Liu Xiang on the right Way to London, leaving Injuries behind

Liu Xiang became in Athens-2004 the first male Chinese Olympic champion in athletics ever
Photo: Donald Miralle/ Getty Images 
           How does it feel to be a national hero? And how does it feel when an untimely injury causes you to descend sharply from the skies to the ground, destroying your dreams of glory and so the expectations of millions of people? Track and field is a truly demanding sport and tough workouts derive in bothersome injuries. There is not arguably any other sport in which so many standouts are left out of important championships due to hamstring, knee or foot troubles. It was sad to see a half-fitted Mizuki Noguchi, trying bravely at Nagoya Marathon to qualify for London. The Olympic champion eight years ago could only run two marathons since, being unable to defend her title in Beijing. Yet she was largely seen heading the field in Nagoya and, after having been dropped early on, she did not give up, struggling for more than 10 km until she caught the leading group again, to eventually lose for the first time in her career against domestic competition. Noguchi was just another true champion beat up for a cruel fate. However, she is not the only one world or Olympic winner who risks ending up out of London Olympic Games. Tyson Gay, the last man who got the better of foremost track and field star Usain Bolt, is uncertain to be able of challenging him again this summer. One nation, Australia, has up to three athletes in the same situation. Nathan Deakes, 50km walk champion in Osaka in 2007, was back in Daegu. He tried to match former prowess just to discover he is not yet back to the fitness of his winning days and had to withdraw in tears. In London he will have another chance. Also another gold medallist in Osaka, Jana Pitmann, is running out of time to make the Olympic A standard, after a number of brief comebacks and new setbacks in the last couple of seasons. The Aussie hurdler seems to be doomed at the Olympics. It is likely to be the third straight time she is not ready for the most important of all athletic competitions. Finally, the great pole vaulter Steve Hooker will have to overcome his disappointing performance in Daegu. In Berlin Worlds, knowing his soaring groin would not allow him more than two or three attempts, he entered the contest at 5.85m and still got a marvellous victory. In Korea he could not match that feat, not making any valid jump at the qualifying round. Now there are too many doubts about his ability to match, in a near future, rising athletes as Renaud Lavillenie and Pawel Wojciechowski. Hooker’s Beijing Olympic champion counterparts at the horizontal jumps Irving Saladino and Nelson Evora are not much luckier than him. The former is having some lacklustre years, after a series of injuries, while the latter knows already he would not be able to defend in London. Finally, both double reigning Olympic champions from Ethiopia Kenenisa Bekele and Tirunesh Dibaba are struggling all over the last couple of seasons to regain their past form. Meanwhile, Kenya has taken the spotlight as the dominating nation in long distance on the track.   
            Not only veteran champions but quite a lot young hopefuls likewise have been sidelined recently. Bai Xue, the surprising winner at the World Championship marathon in Berlin, after two years with recurring injuries, made a desperate attempt to qualify for London at the Chinese national trials, and her effort was as unfruitful as Noguchi’s. Polish athletes Kamila Chudzik and Sylwester Bednarek were bronze medallists at 2009 World championships in Daegu at the heptathlon and high jump respectively but their promising careers came to a halt soon afterwards. Also teen prodigy Angelica Bengtsson is living a nightmare since last summer and, after not competing in Daegu, she was again unable to show up during the past indoor campaign. Now that Holly Bleasdale, Hanna Sheleh and Liz Parnov which she comfortably beat in junior and youth championships are making a big impression among the seniors, the leader of this talented generation must remain frustrated at home. And nor in much more optimistic mood can be her compatriot Susanna Kallur, who obtained a sensational world indoor record at the 60m hurdlers back in 2008 just to suffer a stress fracture soon afterwards, along with twin sister Jenny, who has already given up and retired from athletics. Sanna, a hurdler with a flawless technique who right now could be challenging Sally Pearson for the supremacy in the event, now and then announces her comeback to no avail. It is a truly unfair situation in which the athlete suffers in silence, unable to return to his past shape, now and then blamed for a weak performance by fans and journalists which are not always as sensitive as they should be, and when the time pass quickly forgotten. Does anybody remember promising Brit Becky Lyne, who was once labelled the succesor of Kelly Holmes? She is still trying to participate at the host Games. Becky says she used to be a conceited girl but injuries had taught her humbleness and what life really is. And at least she still can try: Petra Lammert, once the future of shot putting, had to retire from track and field and now is looking for a new dream in bobsleigh. Fortunately, there are also some athletes happily returned to the elite, after some difficult seasons. Ariane Friedrich underwent knee surgery last year and after the long break she has already jumped 1.91 this winter. It has also been marvellous how Ivet Lalova reached again a world championship final and dipped under 11sec, six years after she dramatically broke her leg in a competition warming up. During this period, she has needed seven different operations and no one could imagine one day she could be back to her best so these are really encouraging news.
                 Nevertheless, maybe the most remarkable comeback, because of all he represents for a country of 1.3 billions of people, is the one of hurdler Liu Xiang. The man who became the first Asian athlete in winning an Olympic gold medal in sprints and also the first male Chinese in doing so in any track and field event at Athens 2004, had to endure four years later the bitter experience of letting down a crowd of 90.000 spectators and the dreams of a whole nation, when he exited the Bird Nest Olympic stadium, without even having the chance of competing.  
A volunteer is in tears after Liu Xiang withdrawal from Beijing Olympic Games
Photo: Associated Press 
                Liu Xiang, the son of a truck driver, entered sport as a high jumper but, in spite of winning the national championship of his age, a bone test showed (wrongly) he was not to be tall enough for the event so he was invited to give it up. (1) However, the kid from the Putuo district of Shanghai was determined to participate one day at the Olympic Games so he tried other specialties until renowned coach Sun Haiping, who had mentored Asian champion Chen Yanhao, spotted his talent for the hurdles in 1998. Famously, the young athlete’s parents wanted their son to concentrate in a College career as Computer Engineering instead of wasting his time in what they believed something without a future, so Sun had to make several visits to convince them. From then on, Liu Xiang’s progress over the hurdles was meteoric. After only three years practising the event he went on to break the world youth best, then the world junior record one year later in a meeting in Lausanne, with a clocking of 13.12 which stands to date. In his first senior season, Liu won a remarkable bronze medal at the World championships in Saint Denis and he followed it up with silver in Budapest in the winter of 2004, on occasion of the World indoors. Then came his sensational and unexpected victory at the Olympic Games over Terrence Trammell, defending champion Anier García and big favourite Allen Johnson, matching Colin Jackson’s world record time of 12.91 in the process.
            The gold medal Liu Xiang won in Athens was not really the first one in track and field for China in the history of the Olympics. Race walkers Chen Yueling and Wang Liping and long distance runner Wang Junxia had achieved it before. Even that same evening Huina Xing would also win at the women’s 10.000m, but Liu’s feat would have a much higher impact in the country than his female counterparts’. Soon the hurdler became a national icon, a role model, the most popular sportsman in China, along with NBA player Yao Ming. A part of the secret for sudden Liu Xiang’s success among his countrymen was he had accomplished an Olympic triumph in a speciality Asians had for long time thought to be genetically inferior to more muscled Europeans and Afro-Americans, who had dominated every previous Olympic 110m hurdles final. Liu himself had experienced that feeling in his first international competitions as a teen but soon realised his event is more about dynamics than pure speed and power. The new star of the high hurdles had not the explosive outburst of his iron-muscled contenders but his coordination and technique were outstanding, he rarely made a mistake, and his irresistible acceleration made him a fearsome contender for anybody. (2) After his surprising victory in Athens, legend Colin Jackson would react in awe, describing Liu as “a silky hurdler.” (3) This natural elegance and the fact for the first time an Asian sprinter was the reference for Europeans and Americans and not the opposite was quickly noticed by Chinese fans. “My victory has proved Asians can run fast too,” stated the proud new Olympic champion. (1)  
                          According to Wang Xiaoshan, a journalist of Sports Illustrated, Liu is on the frontline of a 30-year campaign to rebuild national confidence, based in investments in order to obtain sportive success. Since China was back to the Olympic Games in Los Angeles 84 its medal tally has been increasingly impressive. Traditionally the country was a powerhouse in tennis table, badminton, judo or gymnastics. Now they focused in some technical events as diving and shooting and then in other sports, until they eventually topped the medal table at the 2008 host Games with 51 gold and 100 medals overall.  "Until 1978 China was a closed country that thought it was doing well. Then we opened the door and suddenly realised we were poor and backward. It was a huge blow to national pride. To rebuild confidence, the government focused on sport. In the early Eighties the victory of the women's volleyball team in the world championship was a huge lift. Then we saw Chinese victories in many other events. But there was one area where it seemed we would never break through - men's athletics. Here we failed again and again until Liu came through and changed everything." (2) Thereafter China was something more than the land of ping pong and martial arts. They have shown the world they have the capacity to face the best even in track and field, the king of sports in the Olympic Games.
            Besides, Liu Xiang had something else: a special charisma and a personality which fits with the new image China wants to offer both internally and abroad. The Asian country has evolved from a closed country into an emerging economical powerhouse, which increasing presence all around the globe. Liu owns the qualities of hard work and sacrifice required for the collective building up of the Communist nation but at the same time represents the brilliant individualism the modern Chinese interests towards the world demand. (2) Liu has a taste for designer clothes, speaks confidently and smart, is rich, with a conquering smile, the perfect man to successfully sponsor Coca Cola, Nike and other international companies. And after all, Liu Xiang remains humble, still would like to live a normal life far away from the pressure of fame. He likes shopping, singing karaoke and chatting over the internet as any average Chinese citizen does. In the opinion of one of his most enthusiast fans "he has achieved the dream of every generation of Chinese athletes. Yet he remains very low-key, never shows off and does not talk about his personal life in public. He has made a deep impression on Chinese people's hearts." (3)  

Liu Xiang in pain, shortly before withdrawing from his 100m hurdles heat at Beijing Olympic Games
Photo: Adrian Dennis/ AFP/ Getty Images  
             After his Olympic victory in 2004, Liu Xiang consolidated his number one status at the 110m hurdles with three other solid campaigns. In 2006 he broke his own world record, clocking 12.88 in Lausanne; then became world champion outdoors in Osaka and indoors in Valencia. Everything was set for the man who had become the image of modern China to make a breathtaking defence of his Olympic title at the host Games, raising once again pride in the country. Yet fatality made become the dream in a national tragedy. Emerging star Dayron Robles had taken Liu’s world record and the Cuban had clearly dominated during the summer season, while his Chinese archrival had competed scarcely due to a soaring foot. Robles appeared as the favourite but Liu was known to hold well the pressure and being at home he was expected to still prevail in a sensational clash.  Nevertheless, the whole China, who had been reunited in one heart as never before for the 110m hurdles Olympic final, had to witness in astonishment how their hero, unable to run his heat, exited by the back door. Liu Xiang’s recurring troubles with his right Achilles tendon had been kept in secret; only on the hurdler’s official webpage there was a mention of it and it was a real drama to watch Coach Sun Haiping trying to explain his trainee failure to compete, in a speech broke continuously by tears. Many fans and journalists showed sympathy with the athlete’s difficult situation (4) but others blamed him saying he had actually withdrawn beaten by the pressure and by his fear of Robles. (5) There was even talk Liu had been preoccupied all the time with sponsorship activities and advertising opportunities, thus having little time for intensive training so it was useless to run. (6)         

            Liu Xiang’s Achilles tendon required surgery, which was successfully undergone on December of that unfortunate Olympic year. Understandably, the depressed athlete also needed psychological help. Liu missed Berlin World Championships, not reappearing until late September of that year on occasion of the Shanghai Grand Prix. One month afterwards he took over the National Games for a record third straight time, in one of the most emotive victories of his career. However further complications on his foot only allowed him to compete in three races during the 2010 outdoor season. Yet, in spite of setbacks, he never lost the favour of his fans: 70.000 people were watching his victory in Guangzhou at the Asian Games. Eventually, the Chinese hurdler started to see the light last year, ending the campaign with a really praiseworthy silver medal at Daegu World championship, which could have been gold, had not old fellow Robles make him lost his balance with an irregular manoeuvre over the last obstacle. In 2012, we have witnessed the Chinese champion breaking again his indoor 60m hurdles area record and ending runner-up at the World indoors in Istanbul, after American Aries Merritt. Now, Liu is undergoing transcendental changes in his technique as reducing his number of starting steps before the first hurdle from eight to seven. While Yao Ming sadly retired last year after an injury plagued basket ball career, the other Chinese standout is on the right way to recover his lost Olympic title and number one status this summer in London. Curiously, now his rival and defending champion Dayron Robles is the one with injury concerns but hopefully he will be also ready to deliver the exciting match we missed four years ago. Good luck also for every injured athlete, wishing everybody will be healthy to attend the upcoming Olympic Games.  

Liu Xiang and Dayron Robles before their last clash at the Birmingham indoor meeting in February 


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