03-28-2006 12:39

On August 28, 2004 at 3:30 AM Beijing Time, the 21-year-old Chinese hurdler Liu Xiang won a gold medal in the men's 110-meter hurdles at Athens. He became the first Asian to win an Olympic gold medal in a track and field event. This was a momentous occasion for Chinese people. Liu Xiang was a dark horse in the Athens Olympics, because nobody believed an Asian athlete could win an Olympic medal in this event.

In the past 10 years, American hurdler Allen Johnson has won four straight IAAF World Championships titles and one Olympic championship in the 110-meter hurdles, dominating world competitions. Any hurdler who wanted to win the 110-meter hurdle gold medal in the Athens Olympics had to be better than him. Throughout history, western athletes have dominated track and field events, and no Asian athlete had ever won a track and field gold medal.

In the 2001, at the IAAF World Championships held in Edmonton, Canada, Liu Xiang met his idol Allen Johnson for the first time. He was very excited. From then on, his dream was to beat Johnson.

The research team usually photographs Liu Xiang during trainings and competitions, and then develops the pictures using software to learn his hurdling angles. While they use common video cameras and computers in their work, their work requires advanced knowledge and skills.

Li Ting said: "A limb consists of bones. Its angle is decided by its bones. The joint is the hub, and muscles move around it. For instance, when we measure Liu Xiang's arm angle, we measure the angle between his elbow joints and wrist joints. When we measure his leg angle, we measure the angle between his knee joints and hip joints. You need to know anatomy. We use video cameras to photograph his hurdling movements. We need to stand at the right place to photograph his moves clearly. For instance, when photographing his moves over this hurdle, we need to place the camera parallel to it, otherwise, we can't get an accurate picture."

In addition to analyzing Liu Xiang's trainings, the research team also monitors his rivals' moves at important international races. They use this information to adjust Liu Xiang's strategies in races. World champion Allen Johnson's every move in the Athens Olympics was the research team's focus.

Li Ting said: "In a hurdles race, a hurdler usually accelerates from the start line to the 3rd hurdle, then keeps his maximum speed between the 4th hurdle and the 7th and finally sprints from the 8th to the finish line. We can divide the process into smaller stages."

Generally, the time spent from the start line to the 7th hurdle decides the race. From the start line to the 3rd hurdle, Johnson usually dominated and was at his peak. From the 4th hurdle to the 7th , Liu Xiang basically matched the world's top hurdlers. With this superior strength, he finally caught up with Johnson and dashed to the finish line almost at the same time as Johnson did in the 2004 IAAF Golden League Championships. Liu seemed to have almost equaled Johnson in strength. However, in 110-meter hurdles, things don't always go as expected.

Li Ting said: "Hurdling requires sophisticated skills. If you run after others, you want to surpass them and you lose your own rhythm. Under this situation, your focus isn't different from when you lead the race. Once your focus changes, your rhythm will be disrupted and you'll be easily distracted. You'll hit the hurdles and may even fall down."

For the 100-meter hurdles, the start is very important. If a hurdler is found to kick off his starting block within 0.1 seconds after the starting gun is fired, he'll be judged in violation of the start rule, and all hurdlers have to return to the start line to restart. If any hurdler violates the rule for twice, he'll be eliminated from the race. The rule is often used by experienced hurdlers. For example, in order to get a better score, a weak hurdler usually starts to run a little before the starting gun is fired. Even if he is found to violate the rule, he has nothing to lose. Sometimes, a hurdler purposely violates the rule in the first start to ruin other hurdlers' strategies. Allen Johnson is a master at this.

Johnson excels from the 1st hurdle to the 3rd one and isn't influenced by his rivals. In order to catch up with him, his rivals have to change their own rhythms. This is his secret weapon. To defeat Johnson, a hurdler must have a proper rhythm to switch between hurdling and running.

Li Ting said: "You have to have the right combination of running and hurdling. If you run fast but can't hurdle well, you can't get a good time in the race. If you hurdle fast but can't run fast, you can't get a good time, either. The distance between two hurdles is fixed. A hurdler's time mainly depends on how he switches his rhythm between running and hurdling. This is why the hurdles event is different from the 100-meter sprint."

The 110-meter hurdles don't need a large amount of movement. In less than one month before the 2004 Olympics, Liu Xiang focused his attention on improving his rhythm of switching between running and hurdling. Keeping a good rhythm requires skill and focus. In addition to his coaches' advice, other tools were used.

Li Aidong said: "To improve Liu Xiang's rhythm, we put his best rhythm into 10 images and played them repeatedly for him. At first, the pictures didn't have music. Later, we added some music to them. So his rhythm could be intensified visually and acoustically."

Although French hurdler Ladji Doucoure wasn't gaining much media attention then, he still caught the research team's eyes. They discovered that Doucoure's strengths were similar to Liu's. In the various rounds of the 110-meter hurdles, Doucoure ran like a tireless horse and displayed dominance over competitors. After he entered the men's 110-meter hurdle semifinal, he was still in high spirits and even finished a race in 13.06 seconds, which was Liu Xiang's best time. The research team had to find Doucoure's weaknesses to help Liu defeat him.

Li Aidong said: "During the semifinal, we sent a report to Liu's coaching team analyzing Doucouré's weaknesses. We pointed out he couldn't start well but equaled Liu in strength at later stages and that Liu could beat him in the final if he didn't lose to him at the start."

Li Ting said: "We told Liu's coaches that Doucouré peaked from the 3rd hurdle to the 7th one but didn't do well at the start. Before Athens, Liu had never lost to him. So he had the psychological edge over Doucouré in the final."

A good start is critical to hurdles racing. Johnson relied on this to establish his dominance in the sport. Although starting wasn't Liu Xiang's strongpoint, he had a more stable rhythm in the race than Doucouré.

Li Ting said: "In 1st place in a race, you'll have one psychological state that's different from that you have when you're in 2nd place. With different psychological states, you can display your skills to different extent."

The research team discovered that Doucouré didn't have strong stamina. He easily became tired. When he became tired, he couldn't run at his fastest speed in the race. Could this weakness make him lose in Athens?

Li Ting said: "According to our analysis and Liu Xiang mental state, his coaches changed his focus."

In important races, an athletes needs to control his or her mental state. If an athlete isn't in high spirits in time, he'll easily lose. But if he's spirited too early, his energy will be wasted. In one of Liu Xiang's trainings prior to the Athens Olympics, the research team discovered he was too spirited too early. His coach Sun Haiping quickly had him calm down.

Li Ting said: " Before going to Athens, Coach Sun Haiping was constantly worried that Liu Xiang would get too excited too early. He added some exercises and intensity to Liu to make him feel a little fatigued. This helped prevent Liu from getting high spirited too early."

The starting gun for the final was fired. All his rivals were at the start line. Some experienced athletes purposely violated the rule in the first start to increase the pressure on rivals. Liu Xiang had never been to the Olympics. Could he handle the pressure?

As expected, the 2003 IAAF World Championship silver medalist Terrence Trammell, from the USA, violated the start rule. Everyone had to return to the start line.

TV Pictures: The race has begun. Liu Xiang starts very smoothly. He's now in 1st place. Trammell is next to him. Liu Xiang leads the race! He wins! He wins the Olympic gold! He made a new Olympic record! He's created history!