16 May, 2015

Shanghai to pay tribute to ‘one of the greatest’

Chinese officials and international athletes paid tribute to legendary sprint hurdler Liu Xiang today ahead of a special ceremony to mark the former world record holder and Olympic champion’s retirement from the sport at the Shanghai Diamond League meeting on Sunday, 17 May.

Exact details of the ceremony are being kept under wraps by the meeting organisers, but the activities at the Shanghai Stadium will involve the reigning 110m hurdles world champion, David Oliver, and the current world record holder and Olympic champion, Aries Merritt, who are due to race China’s new sprint hurdles hope Xie Wenjun in the evening’s traditional marquee event.

 Oliver called Liu “one of the greatest of all time” today before wishing him well in the future. “Liu has accomplished so much in his career,” said the 33-year-old American who won gold at the 2013 World Championships in Moscow.

 “He was a great ambassador for China on the track and will be a great ambassador off the track too. He has achieved so much and it’s unfortunate he has had to end his career early but I know he will do great things in the future.”

Liu announced his retirement from competitive action just one month ago after finally accepting defeat in his three-year struggle with an Achilles injury.

 

His connection with the Shanghai Stadium goes back to the very start of his career in 1999, just two years after it was built, when he raced here as a raw 15-year-old yet to break 14 seconds.

He went on to win Olympic gold in Athens in 2004, becoming China’s first Olympic champion in a men’s event, and two years later smashed the world record running 12.88 before adding the world title to his name in 2007.

A son of Shanghai, he raced often at China’s premier international meeting, first held in 2005 as the Golden Grand Prix, and the city’s sports officials said tomorrow’s ceremony would provide a fitting farewell to their most famous sporting icon.

 “This is Liu Xiang’s home town so it’s the best place to wish him farewell, and of course wish him well in his future,” said Wang Dawei, the deputy director of track and field at the National Aministration of Sport.

 “We have been holding this meeting for more than 10 years and in the past decade we have created great opportunities for Chinese athletes to compete with international stars. It’s been a great platform for young Chinese athletes to compete against international stars.”

That tradition will continue tomorrow when Xie Wenjun takes on Oliver and Merritt hoping to repeat his triumph of 12 months ago when, under the watchful eye of Liu, he defeated the world’s best to bring the meeting to rousing conclusion, sending Chinese fans home with a smile on their faces.

Xie admitted today, however, that even a repeat of last year’s victory won’t erase the tinge of sadness he’ll feel tomorrow at the end of his friend and former training partner’s career.

“I have trained with Liu for the past eight years and we are very close,” said the 24-year-old, who also counts Shanghai as his home town.

“We still meet to eat and chat sometimes and I feel very sad that he’s retired. I wish him all the best. Maybe tomorrow I’ll be in tears in front of everyone because of his retirement.”

As for Merritt, the man who has now taken Liu’s mantle as the fastest ever over the 10 barriers, he confirmed he’ll be at “the farewell party”  and may even say something privately to Liu in his own language.

“My Chinese is still very bad, so I’m not going to tell you what I’ll say,” said Merritt, who has started studying the language. “It’s obviously sad to see him leave but he feels his time in the sport is up. I know he’s married now, so I hope he can find happiness with his family.”

Liu won this meeting’s showcase event four times in his career, most recently in 2012, and was the only Chinese winner before Xie triumped last year in a personal best of 13.23.

From that springboard, Xie went on to win the Asian Games title last October and after a good winter’s training and some impressive runs indoors, the young pretender to Liu’s throne is hoping for another good run tomorrow.

“I feel in good form so I will be competing for the win again,” said Xie. “But obviously these two are the world’s best. I grew up watching them and now they are friends and opponents, but I will try to challenge them.”

As for Merritt, his goal is to run a season’s best after clocking 13.29 a month ago, while Oliver is seeking to recover his form after what he described as a “disaster” at the City Games in Manchester last weekend when he smashed into the eighth hurdle and limped across the line in last place.

 “I’m hoping tomorrow is a new day,” he said. “It doesn’t matter what’s happened before it’s all about doing what you can on the night.”

Whatever happens tomorrow night, it promises to be an occasion when, for once, the winner of the men’s 110m hurdles in Shanghai will have to share the plaudits with an athlete for whom tomorrow really is a new day.