Opposites Attract in 110-Meter Showdown

July 06, 2008, 11 a.m. (ET)

Terrence Trammell could become the biggest sports villain in all of China.

If all goes well for the two-time Olympic silver medalist in the 110-meter hurdles at the US Olympic Track Trials in a few weeks, Trammell will go to Beijing and stare down the man who has become the face of the 2008 Olympic Games in China: Liu Xiang.

Four years earlier, in Athens, Liu unexpectedly ran 12.91 in the final to tie an 11-year-old world record and become the first Chinese male sprinter to win an Olympic gold medal.

Now Liu's countrymen, who comprise 20% of the world's population, expect the man they call "the yellow bullet" to fly over 10 hurdles in less than 13 seconds on August 21 and bring another victory to all of China.

Trammell would like to stop him.

Although Liu has beaten Trammell 13 of the 18 times they have met in a final, and has lowered the world record to12.88 seconds, Liu's margin of victory has narrowed considerably in their last two meetings.  Last year, Liu beat Trammell by a mere seven hundredths of a second in their two races combined.

So who are these potential rivals and running mates?

Both are 6-foot-2 and were introduced to hurdling at age 15, but that's where the similarities end.

When hurdling, Liu leads with his left leg; Trammell with his right.

Liu has had one primary coach throughout his career. Trammell has had three different coaches leading up to each of his three Olympic Trials.

Liu's given name, Xiang, means "Spreading Wings to Fly." Trammell says Terrence Rashaun, means "smooth warrior."

Liu is an only child born in Shanghai. Trammell, born in Georgia and the youngest of three, has never been to China.

At age 12, Liu was being groomed for the high jump; Trammell, the son of a football coach, was playing Pop Warner.

At 15, both athletes discovered hurdles by chance. Liu reportedly had a bone test which showed that he wouldn't be tall enough to be an elite high jumper but coaches at his sports school noticed that he had good rhythm, essential for running hurdles. Trammell, at 15, was "a relay guy" on the jayvee track team at Southwest Dekalb High School in Decatur Ga., and would sometimes run the B heat in the 100 or 200 meters. One day, when the team needed a jayvee hurdler for an upcoming invitational, his coach, Napoleon Cobb, pulled Trammell aside and taught him the mechanics. "Everyday for five weeks, I was the last one off the track," Trammell said. "We were trying to make sure I'd be ready."

In 2001, the two finally met in the semifinals of the 110-meter hurdles at the world championships in Edmonton, Alberta. Liu was an 18-year-old making his world championship debut. Trammell had already graduated from the University of South Carolina and had earned a silver medal in that event at the 2000 Sydney Olympics.  Trammell edged out Liu for third place in the heat, but neither man qualified for the final.

Two years later, at the 2003 World Championships in Saint-Denis, France, both made the final. Trammell took silver and Liu captured the bronze, but both were beaten by the 1996 Olympic gold medalist, Allen Johnson of the US.

Liu went on to make history in Athens. He auctioned off his gold-medal spikes and donated the proceeds to help build schools in Shanghai. Trammell, the runner-up, says he still owns both pairs of his silver-medal winning Mizunos.   

As the defending Olympic champion, Liu has been promoting everything from clothes to credit cards. Trammell, when asked recently if he was a pitchman for anything, said, "No, but I'd really like to be." Unlike Liu, Trammell has never appeared in a music video, either.

On the track, the two men have finished 1-2 four times since 2004, including at the 2007 World Championships and the 2007 Reebok Grand Prix in New York City meet where Trammell lowered his personal best to 12.95. Trammell's lone victory over Liu since the Olympics came at the Gaz Saint-Denis meet in July of 2006.

In the interim, Trammell has also continued to run sprint events (although he will only contest the 110-meter hurdles at the Olympic Trials). Liu has not. "I don't think I'd be good at it," Liu said. "I still feel there's a difference between our [Chinese] physique compared to Europeans and Americans. I'd probably run 10.3 or 10.4 at best [for 100 meters], but hurdling is different because we can compensate."

Technically, Trammell's strength is his start; the last time Liu raced, at the Prefontaine Classic on June 8 in Oregon, he was disqualified for a false start.

While it has been said the Liu is the more natural hurdler and that Trammell's raw sprinting speed impedes him because it's hard to slow down to get over the hurdle, Trammell has been fine-tuning his technique and has begun to finish as strongly as he starts.  "I've changed my mechanics going into and coming off each hurdle," he said, declining to give specifics. "I don't stop my progress going into them like I used to. My momentum carries me now."

Will momentum be enough for Trammell to end eight years of being runner-up at the Olympics and upset Liu in the 51-stride race for gold? The pressure is on - and that is what may reveal the ultimate difference between the two hurdlers.

Liu recognizes pressure but denies its effect. He has gone so far as to say, "I don't have set goals before competitions. My coaches probably have goals for me, but I'm just responsible for resting well, practicing well, and doing well in races."

Trammell's take on high-pressure situations is: "Ultimately, that's where legends are made. I feed off it."


Aimee Berg is a freelance contributor for teamusa.org. This story was not subject to the approval of the United States Olympic Committee or any National Governing Bodies.