When Liu Xiang claimed victory in the 110-m hurdles in Athens, delivering China its first ever sprint gold, you could almost sense the alarm in the announcers' voices. Few had heard of this mystery athlete, much less knew how to pronounce his given name. What a difference four years make. In Beijing, Liu, 25, along with basketball star Yao Ming, will be the poster boy for China's mighty Olympic squad. Here's a quick language guide: his name (pronounced Sheeahng) means "to soar" in Chinese.
Soaring is just what China expects Liu to do. A recent Internet poll found that the Chinese citizenry's No. 1 Olympic wish is for Liu to win gold. The Chinese Sports Ministry, which has three doctors dedicated to Liu's well-being, apparently holds similarly high hopes. "Officials told us if Liu could not win a gold medal in Beijing, all of his previous achievements would become meaningless," said Sun Haiping, Liu's coach, to the press last year. Just how important is Liu to the Chinese nation? Well, an insurance company has valued his legs at $13.5 million.
Yes, that's just a teeny bit of pressure. And there's no sign of its letting up. In June, Cuba's Dayron Robles wearing an oversize gold cross, a chunky watch and a pair of glasses almost casually broke the world record that Liu had set two years earlier. Now Liu must strike gold and try to reclaim the world mark. "In China, I don't think even the Prime Minister is as famous as he is," says former British world champion Colin Jackson of Liu, who demolished Jackson's world record. "There's a lot of pressure on him to deliver that gold medal, but he has incredible competition. That must be hell for him."