The Chinese Athletics Association has found in their midst 'a national treasure' in Olympic champion Liu Xiang. And right up there with the pandas, this is a treasure the country intends to protect and squeeze the maximum worth out of. There are currently 500 national team athletes and coaches in five specialist track and field camps around the country, all making intense preparations for 2008. This is the biggest athletics training camp China has ever put together, according to Feng Shuyong, vice-director of the association. Foreign specialist coaches are being flown in by the dozen to lend international expertise, and the programme is intertwining study trips abroad for the Chinese athletes and coaches. This concerted effort is paid for by the central government, which is desperate for track success in particular in 2008. Previously, Chinese athletes spent most of their time training at a local level with their provinces. But this time round the Olympic hosts have more resources to spend so the elites were picked out straight after the National Games in October and thrown headlong into a three-year turbo programme. 'It gives us a great advantage over previous years,' Feng said. However privileged these athletes might feel, one in particular has been given exalted status. The association has formed a 'Liu Xiang Work Team', a committee made up of all the bigwigs in Chinese athletics, to 'make him feel comfortable in life and in training', Feng said. The committee's project is to examine all aspects of the young man's life to ensure he pulls off a repeat performance of his stunning victory in the 110-metre hurdles. One of the first conclusions the committee agreed was: no more endorsement deals. The Shanghai native has already signed five commercial contracts - placing him in the top-three in the national earnings list for entertainers and sports celebrities - and the work team said enough is enough. 'Companies can pay to use his image, but there will be no more appearances,' Mr Feng said. They have also begged the media to back off, and denied interview requests with the star. No doubt some of the best training Liu got this year came from trying to avoid swarms of journalists. When he arrived in Macau airport for the East Asian Games, for instance, he was surrounded by a wall of security staff, and they in turn were submerged by a media wave. Then he did what the hurdling champion does best: he bolted and left the breathless hacks chasing a trail of dust. During the National Games in Nanjing, his training venue was changed three times to avoid his adoring fans, and decoy cars were used to send them on wild goose chases. His coach Sun Haiping says all this is having a 'very negative influence' on his young star and wants to shield him from the public eye. 'Stop making him into a legend,' he urged the press and public. This year, he will have Liu focus on strength training, and he will only enter him in a handful of select events to keep him sharp. The only date on his radar is August 8, 2008. For Liu's part, the wunderkind is finding freedom an elusive commodity in the race for an Olympic medal. 'I cannot even go shopping anymore. All I can do is stay at home and play computer games or chat on my computer,' he recently said. But from now on he'll have plenty to occupy his spare time, too, as his carers are also keen to nurture his mind. Despite not having the standard academic credentials, he has been fast-tracked into a doctoral programme in sports management where a special team of 10 university professors is on hand to cater to his every educational need. Some are starting to ask if all this mollycoddling is appropriate. In particular there were gagging sounds aplenty when the city of Shanghai announced they would erect a bronze sculpture of the 22-year-old inspired by his success in Athens. But for now, officials know the worth of their treasure and they are not about to start sharing it around, as nothing else on their sporting horizon shows anything like Liu's promise. Officials quietly recognise some Olympic events are more equal than others. For all the 63 medals the Chinese team brought home from Athens - from taekwondo to table tennis, from weightlifting to wrestling - the gold in the hurdles was far and away the victory the nation found the sweetest. So now, no effort or expense is being spared to help Liu Xiang leap over those 10 hurdles quicker than anyone else come 2008.