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Hopes for hurdler amid earthquake grief

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James Reynolds | 21:17 UK time, Saturday, 24 May 2008

The Sichuan earthquake continues to dominate this country's attention. But one event has managed to divert people's minds - I've just seen 13 and a bit seconds that the whole of China would like to see repeated in August at the Olympic Games.

Liu Xiang, the Chinese hurdler, has just won a warm-up event held at the Olympic Stadium in Beijing. I joined tens of thousands of fans to watch his race. Liu was so far ahead of the rest of the field that he slowed down to a jog as he crossed the line. He accompanied his jog with a kind of nonchalant hangdog expression - the kind that you or I might have if we were queuing up at the post office, not winning races in front of huge crowds.

Liu Xiang is China's great hope for this summer's Olympics. That's a reasonably boring way of saying it - so let me put it another way: whether or not Liu Xiang wins gold may be the difference between the Games being a success for China and the Games being a triumph. An Olympic title in a high-profile track event would beat anything else that China might achieve at this summer's Games. If Liu Xiang ever considered an under-the-radar approach in the run-up to the Beijing Olympics, he obviously cast aside the thought pretty quickly.

Wherever you go in Beijing you find pictures of the champion hurdler looking straight back at you. By my count he advertises a sports car, some sports gear, a credit card, and also something else I saw at a bus stop but couldn't quite work out (no doubt the product is in some way sleek and fast). It would perhaps be easier and quicker if all of us in Beijing simply carried his photo in our wallets.

It's hard to imagine what kind of pressure he's under. He is expected to win - he's the defending champion and world record holder in his event. But he doesn't seem to mind. After tonight's race, he was asked about the Olympic Stadium and the thought of coming back and winning a gold medal in August: "I hope it will be the second birthplace of my dreams," he told the crowd.

PS: Tonight's event may have been about athletics - but the Sichuan earthquake wasn't far from people's minds. Whenever an athlete from Sichuan was introduced, the crowd cheered and roared.


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