Liu Xiang comeback faces highest hurdles in own hometown

Shanghai, which prides itself on being the best at everything, shows little patience for talk that injured Olympian may make another run at glory

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 07 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 07 September, 2013, 5:12am

Liu Xiang , the Olympic champion who fell at the first hurdle at the London Games last year, has indicated he may return to the track again. But his comment has not gone over well with everyone, particularly in his hometown of Shanghai, where some say they have grown tired of Liu's comeback attempts.

Liu returned home on August 29, just two days ahead of the opening of the National Games in Liaoning province. The 30-year-old has just completed 10 months of rehabilitation in the United States for his Achilles tendon injury.

Liu posted a comment on his Tencent microblog account in July saying he wanted to run again. It may be difficult for people outside China to understand the significance of Liu's statement. He is both loved and loathed. He won gold in Athens in 2004, which for a time made him the most recognisable face on the mainland. But at the Being Games four years later Liu failed to jump a single hurdle, pulling out because of a problem with his Achilles.

His fall in a 110-metre hurdles heat in London another four years on sent a wave of grief and disappointment across China. Some accused Liu, the state media and the government of keeping the seriousness of his injury quiet for sponsorship money and the attention he generated while competing.

There has also been some measure of sympathy. There have been new media reports that Liu has recovered from his injury and could claw his way back to compete for gold.

His father, Liu Xuegen , has not ruled out a comeback for Liu Xiang, telling local media it was up to him to make the decision about whether to return.

Since Liu's absence, the Shanghai sporting delegation has lost its lustre. It's in search of a hero. Common sense suggests that despite their frustration with Liu, fans would in all likelihood welcome him back, despite his 2012 catastrophe.

Liu represents more than athletic perfection. Shanghai fans have embraced the hurdler as a symbol of the city, of the superiority of the city's residents over mainlanders elsewhere.

He takes his place alongside basketball superstar Yao Ming , who retired from the game in 2011 owing to serious foot injuries. Government-run athletics facilities are seeking to cultivate the next Yao or Liu to turn them into icons.

One contender is Sun Yang , a native of Zhejiang province, who has already stolen some of Yao and Liu's limelight as the country's most celebrated long-distance swimming star, consistently winning championships.

Some Shanghai residents have expressed respect and affection for Liu, hoping he puts his health before medals. Others are suspicious that any potential comeback could be linked to Liu's existing sponsorship deals, which some say could cost him millions if he retires.

Liu Xiang's coach, Sun Haiping , is taking a more cautious approach in respect to any return to competitive hurdling, saying Liu must fully recover from his injury first.

The down time offers a window for Liu to learn that his countrymen will no longer support him unconditionally, no matter how hard he tries to bolster the city's pride.

In Shanghai, sport fans love only winners and quickly lose confidence when stars fade.

"I don't want to see him crash into the hurdles again," said Zhang Huahai, a 60-year die-hard local sport fan. "It's a waste of my time and energy to see him run again. Stressing over his never-say-die spirit and sportsmanship is useless."