BEIJING (AP) China's talismanic hurdler Liu Xiang has shown less-than-stellar form this year. Now, as the Beijing Olympics get under way, there are questions whether he can defend his 110-meter title in what is bound to be a marquee event.
Nursing a sore hamstring, Liu in June withdrew from the Reebok Classic in New York and then was disqualified from the 110-meter hurdles at a U.S. meet because of a false start. He's been in seclusion ever since, training intensively and making only rare public appearances.
Publicly, many Chinese say it's time to lay off the star.
"Liu went from obscurity to China's most famous and now there's a sense that since we have given you so much, you need to deliver," said Beijing university student Lu Haiyang, walking Thursday near the spectacular National Stadium where Liu will run his first heats on Aug. 18, with the final set for Aug. 21.
"Now there's no need to whip a fast horse," Lu said, quoting a Chinese proverb. "But even if we didn't, he'd feel the pressure just as keenly."
Enjoying the home field advantage, China's athletes are gunning for the title of top medal winner. Liu's defense of the title he won four years ago in Athens is a crucial point of pride because China has usually performed poorly on the track.
Another win in front of a home crowd of 91,0000 would be iconic. That Liu, like Yao Ming, is one of China's most visible, and bankable, stars only further adds to expectations. However, unlike Yao, whose team is not forecast to medal, Liu is expected to win.
Liu's gold in Athens, China's first Olympic sprint victory, made him one of the country's most popular athletes. His face beams out from television ads and advertisements across the country and a Chinese insurance company even volunteered $13.3 million worth of coverage for his legs. Liu was selected to carry the Olympic torch after its arrival in Beijing in March.
Liu had been seen as a lock in Beijing, but doubts arose after Cuban Dayron Robles broke his world record in the event in June. In rare public comments, Liu has embraced the pressure and the expectations.
"People may think I am under great pressure now, but I feel that day by day there is no pressure on me," Liu, in typical laconic fashion, said in an interview with state broadcaster CCTV last month. Liu has said he doesn't plan to join in the Olympics opening ceremony on Friday night.
Liu's handlers say he's been working extra hard to make up for preparation time that was lost to injury.
"The time's running short," longtime coach Sun Haiping said in an interview posted on the Web site of the Chinese Athletics Association. "We've wasted too much time before and we have to make good use of each day."
As Liu trains in private, his chief competition, Robles, has been working out before the cameras in the coastal city of Dalian looking nonchalant, even cocky. American Terrence Trammell, a two-time Olympic silver medalist in the event, is also hungry, saying in April: "I see myself winning."
Liu's flat performances this year have been a speed bump in an otherwise uninterrupted path of steady improvement. Since winning his first bronze at the Paris World Championships in 2003, Liu has followed with Olympic gold, the world record, silver at the 2005 Worlds in Helsinki, and gold at the Osaka World's last year.
Still, with China seeing the Beijing Olympics as an opportunity to showcase its development, the drive to win is all-consuming.
"All of the suffering is worth it," Liu said in the CCTV interview. "We're going to prove ourselves to the world."