Guangzhou, China – Chinese athletics star Liu Xiang takes centre stage at the Asian Games next week with the weight of a nation bearing down on the 110m hurdler in his bid for an Asiad treble gold.
The Shanghai-born Liu won gold at the 2004 Athens Olympics but left his country shellshocked when he limped out injured from his heat in the Beijing Games.
His surgery, rehabilitation and comeback have come under the microscope here and all eyes will be pinned on the 27-year-old when he lines up for the heats on Monday, with the final coming on Wednesday.
The multi-millionaire, who has spurned the athletes' village for a luxurious hotel, remains an absolute focal point of the Asiad, with tickets to days when he races going for up to 20 times their face value.
Liu insisted that reclaiming his world record on Asian Games home turf was not his top priority.
“I'm looking to finish in the top ... I hope to win the championship,” Liu told Shanghai's Oriental Sports Daily.
“Whenever I can reach the top three in the world, or whenever I can break the world record, that is when I will have recovered (from injury).”
Liu and his coaches believe that a time of 13.30 seconds in the final should be enough to win the gold medal.
His closest rival is teammate Shi Dongpeng, who beat Liu for the first time ever in May with a time of 13.39sec, Shi's personal best.
“Right now, I don't feel any pressure, so this is good for me,” Liu said.
“If I can run within 13.30 seconds, then I will be satisfied.”
Liu's best time in the event is 12.88 seconds run in 2006. Cuban Dayron Robles bested that time in 2008, setting the world record of 12.87.
Other top stars on the track are Bahrain's Yusuf Saad Kamal and Maryam Jamal, a raft of imported African runners now naturalised to run for various Gulf states.
Kamal, born in Kenya as Gregory Koncellah, the son of Billy – a world 800m champion in 1987 and 1991, is the reigning 1500m world champion and 800m bronze medallist.
Defending Ethiopian-born double champion Jamal came to prominence in 2007 when she became the first Bahraini woman to win a world championship title with the 1500m gold in the Osaka worlds.
She then went on to defend her title in Berlin in 2009 and has a good chance of nabbing both the 800m and 1500m in Guangzhou should she go for the double.
“I want to get gold in the 1500m and retain the title I won in Doha but the competition in Guangzhou will be strong after the improvement of athletes from Japan, India and China,” she said.
“Also don't forget that Bahrain's national champion Mimi Belete will also be here.”
Another foreigner flying an adopted flag will be Samuel Francis, the Nigerian sprinter now turning out for Qatar.
Francis is the Asian record holder over 100m (9.99sec) and said he had one thing on his mind.
“My goal is to get the gold medal,” the 23-year-old said, adding: “Everyone is a potential winner, and Masahi Eriguchi (of Japan) and Hassan Habeeb (of Saudi Arabia) are really strong competitors.”
Those missing include Kamel and Jamal's former team-mates Ruqaya al-Ghassara, the now-retired reigning 200m Asian champion who later failed a doping test, and Morocco-born Rashid Ramzi, who was stripped of his Beijing Games 1500m gold medal after testing positive for drugs.
The 2005 double world 800-1500m champion was one of five Beijing competitors who were later caught out when samples were re-tested in February 2009 and found to contain a new form of the banned blood booster EPO-CERA. – Sapa-AFP