People are used to receiving birthday presents from others. Liu Xiang wanted to give one to himself and when he did, it was a world record.
Liu, who turns 23 today, set the men's 110 metres hurdles world record on Tuesday night (yesterday morning Beijing time) at the Super Grand Prix meeting in Lausanne, Switzerland. It is China's first solely-held world record in any men's track event in history.
In so doing, the Shanghai native knocked 0.03 of a second off the previous record he shared with Britain's Colin Jackson. He also made headlines around the world nearly two years ago when he won gold at the Athens Olympic Games.
That medal earned him the status of a national hero.
"Since winning the gold at Athens, I knew that I could do better," Liu said after breaking the record that Jackson first set on August 20, 1993, in Stuttgart, Germany. "I am the only yellow-skinned athlete who could beat the runners from the Americas and Europe."
His fourth-place finish at the IAAF Golden League Paris stop last weekend caused some observers to doubt Liu's form but the whole purpose of competing this year is to rediscover the winning touch, said Sun Haiping, his coach.
"This year is mainly for Liu to adjust his form as he was suffering from a foot injury which made him miss training and competition for 80 days," Sun said.
"I didn't say when Liu would break the world record, but I knew Liu had that power. He could have achieved it any time he performed at his best form."
Back in Shanghai, Liu's parents waited for word.
"We were waiting for my son's call the whole night, and the phone rang at 4 o'clock this morning," father Liu Xuegen said yesterday. "We were so excited that we couldn't sleep after the call."
Liu Xiang was back on the top of the world. Some might say he never left that status after the Athens Olympics.
Returning from the Games, Liu became more than a national hero. He set his athletics aside briefly and gradually became a millionaire, a lecturer, a singer and a would-be PhD.
Born on July 13, 1983, Liu was a good student in primary school. He was also half a head taller than his peers, so his sports teachers encouraged him to be a high jumper in his second year at primary school. His parents objected.
"I didn't want our son to be preoccupied with sports since he was doing ever so well in school, always scoring high in exams and ranking among the top three in his class," recalled Ji Fenhua, Liu's mother, a retired pastry cook at the Shanghai Food Processing Factory.
But Liu Xuegen, Liu's father, a driver for the Shanghai Waterworks, believed it was a good idea for the young lad to receive the discipline that comes with sports training. From then on, Liu was allowed to train for the high jump after class, and his aspiring attitude impressed his coach a lot.
"The boy had excellent flexibility and great speed," recalled Gu Baogang, Liu's first coach. "But he also had the most important attributes required to be a great track athlete a willingness to train hard with a competitive heart and soul.
"Liu was always the first to volunteer to attempt a jump when I raised the bar ever higher, and he would jump time and time again until he succeeded a determination that often resulted in bruising."
In 1996, his remarkable courage and outstanding physical condition shown in his winning of a 110 metres hurdles race at a local middle school event caught Sun Haiping's attention. That's how their association began.
After six years of gruelling training, on the same track in Lausanne in 2002, Liu won in 13.12 seconds, breaking a 24-year-old world junior record set by Renaldo Nehemiah of the United States. The sports world seemed stunned that an Asian man had accomplished such a feat. In the same year, Liu clinched the gold medal at the Asian Games in Busan, South Korea.
At the 2003 World Championships, Liu finished second to US veteran Allen Johnson, who had dominated the Worlds for four successive years, but still made history for Asian sprinters at the meet.
The following year, 2004, the Chinese superstar rose to his peak by sweeping gold medals at the Asian Indoor Championships, the Osaka Grand Prix, as well as the Athens Olympics, tying Jackson's world mark of 12.91 seconds. To hardly anyone's surprise, Liu was also named the 2005 Laureus World Newcomer of the Year.
However, in the constant media spotlight, the shy Shanghainese felt the burden of becoming the centre of the world's most populous nation. Besides countless social and commercial commitments, Liu aroused attention whenever he appeared, even when not on the track.
"Compared with life before, I experienced more things after the Olympics, 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," Liu once said at a national event.
He has earned millions of yuan from endorsements of products such as cars, motorcycles, clothes, mobile phones, soft drinks and even tobacco.
Last year, he ranked fifth on the Forbes Chinese Celebrity List. He was invited to sing at pop stars' concerts, give lectures to students and athletes, and his story has become course material for elementary schools in his hometown.
Controversies have also swirled around him. Although he has never taken a college course, Liu was awarded a free entry last October to pursue a doctorate at Shanghai's East China Normal University.
He was even involved in a rights infringement lawsuit against Beijing-based Life Style newspaper after it digitally manipulated a photograph of him last October. The Beijing No 1 Intermediate People's Court awarded Liu 20,000 yuan (US$2,500) last December, but the newspaper said it would appeal to the Beijing Higher People's Court.
"Our life before the Olympics was very simple just training, recovering and competing," coach Sun said.
"But now everything has 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."
Liu's world record seems to have quieted the doubters, for now anyway and he says he's ready to meet future challenges, come what may.
"Today is a perfect day for me," Liu said after the victory in Lausanne. "Although pressure exists everywhere, I won't think too much about it. The only thing I have to do is do my best.
"I will go on to treat all competitions seriously in the future and not to disappoint all the people that place big hopes on me."
Source: China Daily