In one corner of the media tent at Crystal Palace yesterday, Mo Farah and Dai Greene were being grilled about the pressure of expectation as reigning world champions on the threshold of a home Olympic Games. In the other corner, the towering Liu Xiang could be excused a wry smile.
The man from Shanghai has been there, done it and got the T-shirt – but not, sadly, the gold medal. Not the gold medal from the home Games, that is. Liu became an icon in his homeland when he won the 110 metres hurdles at the Athens Olympics in 2004, equalling Colin Jackson's world-record time of 12.91 seconds.
It was the first Olympic success in track and field by a male Chinese athlete, and after taking sole possession of the world record with a 12.88sec clocking in 2006, Liu headed into the Beijing Games of 2008 with a billion Chinese expectations resting on his shoulders.
When it came to the crunch in the Bird's Nest Stadium, though, he crashed down to earth – winged by an Achilles tendon injury in the heats. A 91,000 crowd watched in stunned silence as Liu pulled up before getting to the first hurdle.
He hobbled out of the arena in tears and a nation mourned. Sun Haipang, his coach, issued an apology to the Chinese people and the media.
Four years on Liu is fit, in form and eyeing a redemption run in London. Tonight, on his 29th birthday, he will line up in the 110m hurdles at the Aviva London Grand Prix at Crystal Palace. His rivals include Aries Merritt of the United States, the one man ahead of him in the world rankings this summer, plus Britain's high-hurdles trio for the looming Games: Andy Pozzi, Lawrence Clarke and Andy Turner.
When the spectre of Liu's Beijing nightmare was inevitably raised yesterday, there was a weary sigh. It is one hurdle that he will never truly overcome.
"Of course I learned a lot from the last Olympic Games," Liu said. "It has not been easy for me to come back but I had my targets and I motivated myself. Sometimes it's good for athletes to have some difficulties, some frustrations, because it will help them become stronger.
"Wherever I go, people always want to ask me about the Olympics in Beijing. Of course it was a sad time for me four years ago but what happened was really not so special. Every athlete has injuries in his or her career. I prefer to think about the future rather than dwell on things that have happened in the past.
"It is different for me this time. Of course I had more pressure in Beijing than I will have here in London but I have always tried to take this pressure as a motivation rather than something negative."
What about Farah and Greene and the rest of the budding Brits getting ready to enter the pressure cooker of a home Olympics with the hopes of the nation pinned upon them? Does the fall guy of the Beijing Games sympathise?
"Yeah, of course," Liu said. "For every athlete, when they compete in their own country, there will be more pressure for them.
"But I suggest they should focus more on the technical aspect of what they have to do, on the preparation, and don't think too much about the result – just focus on this process.
"They have an opportunity to compete in the Olympic Games, which is a special thing in itself. I wish all those British athletes good luck."Reuse content