Champion hurdler Liu Xiang was the first Chinese man to earn a gold medal in an Olympics track event, winning the 100-meter hurdles at the 2004 Summer Games. The achievement earned him national popularity and global sponsorship, and made him the embodiment of China’s dreams for the 2008 Olympics, until a hamstring injury forced him to pull out of competition.

Liu Xiang was the first Chinese man to win a gold medal in track at the Olympics, completing the 110-meter hurdles at the 2004 Summer Games in Athens in 12.91 seconds to match what was then the world record in the event. Already known to insiders and followers of the sport for his accomplishments as a youth champion, he became an immediate public sensation in China, where media hailed his victory as a repudiation of China’s “sick man of Asia” legacy and an assertion that “yellow men can run.” His dramatic win also translated to instantaneous marketability, bringing endorsement deals with Visa, Coca-Cola, Nike, China Mobile, and other companies that have made him one of China’s wealthiest athletes, second only to basketball player Yao Ming. His celebrity also generated outsized expectations for his performance at the 2008 Beijing Olympics—dreams of another gold that were dashed dramatically when a hamstring injury forced Liu to abandon competition three steps into his opening heat for his signature event.

A Shanghai native who began training as a high jumper at age twelve and switched to hurdles at fifteen, Liu Xiang already was a junior record holder in several events and had won gold in the 110-meter hurdles at the World Student Games in Beijing and the East Asian Games in Osaka in 2001, and at the Asian Championships in Manila and the Asian Games in Pusan, South Korea, in 2002. A confident and stylish performer, Liu expressed astonishment at his winning time in Athens because even in training he’d never finished the event in under 13 seconds. He then went on to break the world record, set thirteen years earlier by Welshman Colin Jackson, with a time of 12.88 seconds at a July 2006 competition in Lausanne, Switzerland—just two days shy of his twenty-third birthday.

Liu Xiang has long emulated 1996 Olympian and four-time world champion Allen Johnson of the United States, whom he bested for the first time a few months before the Athens Olympics. Liu and Johnson continue to vie in the 110 meters, with Liu beating Johnson at the hallowed Prefontaine Classic in Eugene, Oregon, in May 2006, and Johnson beating Liu at the track World Cup in Athens in September 2006. Overall, Liu had a stellar year in 2006, culminating in a gold medal at the Asian Games in Qatar in December. In the first half of 2007 he won five of six international contests. Liu prides himself on having trained entirely in China and has a close working relationship with the coach, Sun Haiping, who first recognized Liu’s hurdling potential—the two share an apartment at their Shanghai training center. Liu also has a reputation for independence, carving his own way through the Chinese sports system and resisting conventions of overtraining. He is known to enjoy karaoke, and his hip youthfulness and sense of fun have played well with corporate sponsors. One TV ad for Visa showed him racing kangaroos. In a deal with Amway, reportedly worth $1.25 million, he represents Nutrilite, a leading global brand of vitamins, minerals, and dietary supplements. Forbes magazine’s 2007 list of Chinese celebrity rankings put Liu Xiang second in terms of “social influence” after Yao Ming and fourth in income; his yearly earnings were estimated at $2.5 million.

Liu Xiang briefly came under criticism for signing on as a celebrity spokesman for a Chinese tobacco giant, Baisha Corporation, and Chinese sports authorities gave notice that Olympic athletes might have to refrain from commercial endorsements in the period leading up to the 2008 Beijing Games. But the threat never materialized. After Liu’s withdrawal several of his main sponsors—including Coca-Cola, Nike, and Visa—reaffirmed that he would remain an important advertising icon, although anticipated appearances in post-Olympic celebratory ads were dropped. Meanwhile his athletic attainments continued to generate privileges, including unusual academic status: Nominally a college student when he won gold in Athens, he subsequently was admitted to a doctoral program in sports studies at East China Normal University, evidence of what the Shanghai Daily called “a typical Chinese style, cross-field meritocracy” (Longman, 2008).

In December 2008 Liu underwent surgery on his right Achilles’ tendon in Houston. A widely watched Coke commercial on television, featuring Liu and his father, helped kick off the Year of the Ox in January 2009.

Further Reading

Anon. (2005, November 1). Liu Xiang must face academic hurdles. Shanghai Daily. Retrieved January 25, 2009, from http://en.bcnq.com/english/doc/2005-11/01/content_489440.htm

Clarey, C. (2008, August 19). In Games, China is denied its signature moment. The New York Times, D-5.

Fowler, G. A., & Lee, W. (2006, August 8). For sponsors, 2008 Olympics have already begun. Wall Street Journal. Retrieved January 25, 2009, from http://online.wsj.com/public/article/SB115497609551828920-8_0kQ0wdMclypje1QdVBBTRL6eM_20060814.html?mod=regionallinks

Longman, J. (2008, August 7). High-profile champion keeps low profile. The New York Times, D-3.

Patrick, D. (2006, May 24). Like countryman Yao, hurdler is finding weight of fame. USA Today. Retrieved January 25, 2009, from http://www.usatoday.com/sports/olympics/summer/track/2006-05-24-beijing-hurdles_x.htm?loc=interstitialskip

Source: Polumbaum, Judy. (2009). LIU Xiang. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 1344–1345. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

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