Popular Cuban could dethrone home-country hurdler

Aug. 12, 2008, 12:20 p.m. (ET)

BEIJING (AP) Dayron Robles could well dethrone China's beloved Olympic champion Liu Xiang in the 110-meter hurdles.

Yet judging by his reception Tuesday, the Chinese adore the Cuban.

He was mobbed by local Olympic volunteers during breaks when he worked out at a training site in the east of Beijing, well away from the National Stadium where he'll compete next week.

Robles posed for picture after picture, signing autograph after autograph.

His fans weren't only Chinese.

Several women on Thailand's track and field team also took turns getting snapshots.

The 21-year-old hurdler broke Liu's world record with a 12.87-second run June 12 in the Czech Republic. Robles has the three fastest times in the world this year while Liu, nursing a sore hamstring, is nowhere to be found in person - though gigantic posters of him are all around Beijing and other major Chinese cities.

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FRESH FACES: Living in the athletes' village makes American hurdler and gold medal contender Lolo Jones feel like a freshman again.

"I can go to any track meet anywhere around the world and know 90 percent of the athletes," said Jones, the reigning world indoor champion in the 400-meter hurdles. "Here, I feel like a nobody, because I don't know anybody."

After all, more than 10,000 Olympians are competing at the Beijing Games.

"It's like that first-year awkwardness all over," she said of her new digs.

Jones is still astonished by who she might bump into - the other day she met guard Chris Paul of the New Orleans Hornets.

"It's like my eyes were popping out of my head those first couple of days," she said. "You're not used to seeing boxers or baseball players, you're not used to having so many people in the cafeteria going to eat. It's fun, but different."

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KOBE FEVER: His teammates include soccer players such as Lionel Messi and Juan Roman Riquelme, idolized by fans around the world. But the athlete that really impressed Argentina goalkeeper Oscar Ustari was NBA star Kobe Bryant.

Ustari said he and several of his teammates met the Los Angeles Lakers guard at the Olympic Village dining room on Tuesday.

"We were first impressed just by seeing him there, then by his unpretentious attitude," Ustari said. "He came to us speaking Spanish. I think he is an example to be followed. We didn't know he was a football fan. There he was, chatting with Leo (Messi) as if they had been friends for years."

Ustari said Bryant, who is at the Olympics with the U.S. team, told him that he is a fan of AC Milan from his childhood years in Italy where he lived with his father Joe "Jelly Bean" Bryant, also a basketball player who spent several seasons in Italy.

"He was really nice," Ustari said. "There were some 20 players in our group and he agreed to have pictures taken with all of us."

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