GUANGZHOU, November 9 – Athens Olympic champion hurdler Liu Xiang aims for his third Asian Games gold medal in Guangzhou, where he will test an injured ankle that has threatened his multi-million-dollar career.
The star 27-year-old athlete, who disappointed millions of fans by pulling up lame in a preliminary 110 metre hurdles heat at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, is looking to use the Asiad as a stepping stone back to elite competition.
Liu has been slow to recover from surgery on his Achilles tendon after the Beijing Games, only showing the explosive form that once made him the world record holder at a September 2009 meet where he posted a time of 13.15 seconds.
Since then, he has been much slower, while soreness in his ankle has kept him out of major meets.
"I’ve been in good form recently … I want to win my third Asian Games and add one more gold medal for China," Liu told reporters following a rare open training session in mid-October.
"My biggest opponent in each race is myself… (but) since I’m making improvements, my confidence will pile up as well."
Liu put his name in the history books as the first Chinese man to win an Olympics track gold, taking the 110m hurdles title in Athens in 2004. He once held the world record in the event with a time of 12.88 seconds.
Beloved by fans, he is hailed as a national sports hero, taking part in last year’s anniversary parade marking 60 years of Communist rule and appearing on stage at the closing ceremony for the World Expo in his native Shanghai.
According to Chinese press reports, the hurdler recently said that 16 commercial endorsements mostly signed ahead of the Beijing Olympics has left him with 200 million yuan (30 million dollars) in the bank.
Liu, who was recruited into a specialist sports school at the age of 12, still earns 1,062 yuan a month as a member of China’s national track and field team, the reports said.
Although he has often downplayed Asian meets and openly said he prefers running in global events, he stayed away from the international circuit the past summer, only appearing at an IAAF Diamond League meet in May in Shanghai.
At that outing, Liu placed third, finishing in 13.40 seconds behind American David Oliver at 12.99 and teammate Shi Dongpeng at 13.39.
It was the first time that long-time teammate Shi had beaten Liu in a major race.
Shi will likely be Liu’s toughest competition when the two line up at the Asian Games for preliminary heats on November 22 and the final two days later.
Following his race in May, Liu left China for the United States, where he sought medical consultations after experiencing discomfort in his repaired ankle.
Since returning to China in September, he has continually felt better, his coach Sun Haiping said.
Liu "didn’t feel good after intensive training before, but now he doesn’t feel as bad," Sun told reporters.
"He can finish between 13.30 (seconds) and 13.40 in the (Asiad) competition now and will return to the international stage next year."