Liu Xiang wants more time and privacy
After last year's Athens Olympic Games, Liu Xiang's name has been a common one in headlines across the Chinese media.
A 900-Chinese character story on his Olympic victory, entitled "Leaping into the new century" appeared in the newly-updated text book for Grade Five students.
"Since Liu's heroic deeds inspired people long after the Olympic Games, we changed the original editing plan a little bit and added his story into the textbook," said one of the editors of the book. "We hope Liu will be a positive example for students."
While experts are wondering whether the 21-year-old athlete can shoulder the heavy responsibility of such widespread fame, Liu has already been facing the price of fame.
For China's biggest star of athletics, track hurdles are not the major obstacles testing him. Instead, being endlessly in the spotlight is proving the hardest to overcome. Freedom and private space are what he needs the most right now.
"I'm still a young man," said Liu, the joint world record holder. "Besides running, I still have other things to do, so I'm eager for more freedom and private time."
After taking the crown for the 110m hurdles at the Athens Olympic Games last year, the life of this 21-year-old young Shanghainese has changed. Whether it is appearing in front of the public, training or competing, reporters, cameras and flashes are ever-present.
"Compared with life before, I experienced more things after the Olympics and they have taught me a lot about behaving and conducting myself," said Liu. "But, honestly speaking, I'm afraid of taking part in competitions right now, not the competing itself, but the over-attention I draw both on and off the track."
His coach is anxious about it as well.
"Our life before the Olympics was very simple, just training, recovering and competing," said Sun Haiping, Liu's coach. "But now everything has been changed. The time for recovery after daily training is often occupied by all kinds of social activities. If the situation doesn't let up, we may consider going abroad for a quieter environment."
While attending the Asian Indoor Athletics Open Tournament & China-Japan Athletics Duel Meet in Tianjin on Tuesday, Liu was the centre of media and spectator attention.
Whether he was doing warm-up exercises or simply standing on the starting line, he was relentlessly followed by a pack of photographers and enthusiastic fans. The disturbance caused by the following has also raised concerns among athletics officials.
"We should be thankful for the attention Liu draws from all, but we hope people will give more free and relaxed space for him to develop," said Feng Shuyong, vice-director of China Athletics Administrative Centre. "If we want to see Liu achieve better results, we should guard him from outside interruptions."
Fortunately, the media pressure did not undermine his performance and he won the race comfortably by 7.50 seconds.
Following his disqualification for a false start in his first indoor meeting of the season in Shanghai 10 days earlier, Liu was careful not to repeat that mistake. He crushed his opponents easily and won by a huge margin of 0.38 seconds. His winning time of 7.50 in the 60m hurdles was his third best ever, only the semi-final and final at last year's Budapest World Indoor Championships were faster.
"I'm very satisfied with Liu's opening result this year since the 60m hurdles is not our key event in training and he achieved the time against no strong opposition this time," commented coach Sun.
Just five days before Liu's first final this year, the young French hurdler Ladji Doucoure, who clocked 13.06 seconds in the 110m hurdles semi-final at Athens Olympics, threw down the gauntlet to Liu with his season opening result of 7.43 at the France Indoor Athletics Meeting 60m hurdles race.
But in spite of the potential challenge from abroad, Liu and Sun remain confident.
"Doucoure is Liu's main rival right now and he still can run faster," said Sun. "But Liu has the space to raise his time as well and what we need to do is to improve Liu's technique, step by step, and do our best in the competitions. We will go on to train and compete at our own pace."
With the time of 7.50 seconds, Liu ranks joint third alongside Stanislav Olijar from Latvia in the world season indoor lists behind Doucoure's 7.43 and Allen Johnson's 7.49.
Besides all the stops of the Golden League, this year's World Championships title is what the young national hero wants the most.
The frequency of events between July and September this year will pose the biggest challenge for Liu, suggested Feng. But since Liu is an athlete who usually rises to the occasion when faced with strong opposition, he should be able to manage those high-level competitions well.
"Liu and his coach have found an effective way to combine training and competitions," said Feng. "Liu can control himself well and he knows his own value. I believe he will do better and better."