All eyes on hurdler Liu Xiang

Updated: 2006-11-16 09:00

With few athletes of calibre like China's Liu Xiang, attention will be focusing on the men's 110 meters hurdles world record holder when track and field events get underway at the December 1-15 Asian Games in Doha.

Liu Xiang of China celebrates setting a new world record in the men's 110-metre race at the IAAF Super Grand Prix athletics meeting in Lausanne July 11, 2006. Liu won the race in a world record time of 12.88 seconds. [Reuters]

The 23-year-old Liu, who shattered the world record when he clocked 12.88 seconds at an IAAF meet in Lausanne last July, is looking to round off his sizzling season in style with a second Asian Games gold.

Four years ago, he scored a runaway victory in the 110m hurdles, clocking a games record of 13.27, bettering compatriot Li Tong's 1994 mark of 13.30.

"The Asian Games is of great importance," said Liu, who is training in South China's Guangzhou, the host city of the 2010 Asian Games. "My goal is simple - winning the gold."

Despite starting as the overwhelming favorite, Liu was warned against complacency because in a technical event like the hurdles, anything is possible.

"It's the end of the season but we still have to work hard," said Liu's coach Sun Haiping. "If I have to, I will make Liu train until his head spins."

Liu, who won the IAAF Performance of the Year Award last week, headlines a 41-strong Chinese squad which also includes teenager Huang Haiqiang, who grabbed gold in the high jump at the world junior championships in Beijing last August, and Asian women's pole vault record holder Gao Shuying.

China won 14 gold medals at the Busan games, roughly a third of the gold medals on offer in track and field. Having Liu and Huang in its ranks, China is expected to walk away with the most gold medals again in Doha.

But if anybody other than Liu Xiang could produce a world class performance, Japan's Olympic hammer throw champion Koji Murobushi tops the list.

The 32-year-old veteran, who was unbeaten this season, is aiming for a third straight Asiad gold to emulate his father, Shigenobu, who won the title for five times in a row.

The Japanese headed home with only two gold medals in track and field at the Busan Asiad. But, this time, they are looking to redeem their position as a regional powerhouse.

Japan is pinning gold-medal hopes on marathon, where it will be represented by Tsuyoshi Ogata, the 2005 world bronze medal winner, and Atsushi Fujita.

The men's 4x100m relay is a traditional Japanese strength, and Shingo Suetsugu, the men's 200m bronze medalist at the 2003 world championships, looks set to defend his Asian Games title.

The hosts and their neighbors, however, cannot be neglected.

Buying in African talents in the past four years have put the Gulf states of Qatar and Bahrain on the map of world athletics. Former Kenyan two-time world 3,000 steeplechase champion Saif Saaeed Shaheen now competes for Qatar, while Bahrain's Maryam Yusuf Jamal became the first Asian woman from outside of China to win a World Cup event after the Ethiopian-born runner had unleashed a blistering last lap to run away with the women's 1500m in Athens in September.

As a matter of fact, west Asia was already a force to be reckoned with in Busan 2002, where Saudi Arabia surprised all by claiming seven gold medals in track and field.

The west Asians are very likely to hit new heights when the Asian Games return to this region for the first time since Iran played host in 1974. Anyhow, competing in heat is routine for them.

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