Cuban Clark Kent to run rings round China's pin-up boy

It has been dubbed the Cuban Missile Crisis, with the kind of crass hyperbole that goes with the unreality of life on the international sporting beat. For the record, the future stability of the planet will not be affected by events in the Beijing National Stadium, the so-called Bird's Nest centrepiece of the 29th modern Olympic Games, on 21 August. For the 1.3 billion citizens of the world's most populous nation, though, that Thursday in their country's capital has long been considered a day of destiny.

Ever since Liu Xiang, the young man from Shanghai whose second name means "flying in the wind", breezed to Olympic gold in the 110m hurdles in Athens four years ago, 9.45pm local time (2.45pm GMT) that day hasbeen earmarked as The Cathy Freeman Moment of the Beijing Games. None of the 112,524 of us fortunate enough to have been present at the Olympic Stadium in Sydney in 2000 will ever forget the electrically charged 49.11sec when Cathy came home with the 400m gold for the host nation. The difference then was there was no outsider capable of pooping the party. Freeman won by almost half a second.

For Liu and China, the troubleis the defending champion will not even line up as the leading contender for the men's 110m hurdles. That mantle has been assumed by Dayron Robles, a 21-year-old from Guantanamo, the south-east Cuban city that stands next to the notorious US naval base. A bespectacled figure, he looks more like a librarian than a world-beating athlete. His appearance, however, is of the deceptive Clark Kentish variety. Running at the Golden Spike meeting at Ostrava in the Czech Republic on 12 June, Robles stopped the trackside clock at 12.87sec. In doing so, in 10 fell swoops over the 3ft 6in barriers of the 110m hurdles, he relieved Liu of the world record that he had held for four years (initiallywith Colin Jackson, courtesy of the 12.91sec Liu clocked to win Olympic gold in Athens; then with the 12.88sec he recorded in Lausanne in 2006). It was no freak strike by the Cuban.

At the Paris Golden League Meeting on 18 July, Robles ran 12.88sec and made it look ridiculously easy with his smooth, high-speed form between the hurdles and his snappy clearance of the barriers. He has also run 12.91sec and 12.96sec this summer. David Oliver, the winner of the UStrials, has run 12.89sec. Liu's best this summer is 13.18sec. Thepin-up boy of the Beijing Games has problems.

Not least of them is the hamstring strain that has kept the25-year-old out of competitive action since May. Two weeks ago he clocked 13.18sec in a behind-closed-doors time trial, but his coach, Sun Haiping, confessed: "Liu's current condition is not good for his Olympic performance. The injury is still there. I hope it can get better in the next two weeks."

The sentiment will be echoed by the nation that has come to idolise the athlete who created history four years ago by becoming the first Chinese man to win an Olympic track-and-field title. Chinese newspapers employ Liu Xiang Correspondents, whose job it is to shadow his every move and fill two broadsheet pages each day.

"People may think I amunder great pressure now," Liureflected, "but I feel that day by day so there is no pressure on me. The level of my skill is there and the key point is to grasp the opportunity. I trust myself."

Liu has kind of been this way before. He was beaten by Roblesin the semi-finals at the World Championships in Osaka last summer but won the final, with the Cuban down in fourth. He also won the 60m hurdles at the World Indoor Championships in Valencia in March after the much-fancied Robles got left in his starting blocks in the heats.

"Liu Xiang is still the favourite," Robles maintained. "He will be at home and he's the champion. He's lost the world record but he's still the main guy to beat.

"Four years ago when he won in Athens I was watching the race from home just after running at the World Junior Championships. I told myself, 'Well, if I get a chance to run in the Olympics in Beijing, I'm pretty sure this guy will be very hard to beat.' I never thought then that I would be where I am now."

Which is in the role of potential Beijing party pooper.

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