After enjoying a six-month sabbatical from the grueling demands of training - a sabbatical interlaced with much soul searching and some surgery - Liu Xiang returned home to Shanghai on Thursday following his debut appearance at China's annual parliamentary session.
China's top hurdler is often front-page news in this country starved of track and field stars. Now his handlers are keen to keep the former Olympic and reigning world champion under wraps and away from the media spotlight to give him the best chance of re-hitting his peak - possibly in time for the Athletics World Championships in August.
"We're going to have him train behind closed doors to avoid distractions," his coach Sun Haiping was quoted as saying by the Shanghai Morning Post last week. "We hope the public and media will bear with us and we will keep the public updated on how he is doing in due time."
Sun will arrange one open training session per month for the media, he added.
Liu has made a faster-than-expected recovery after flying to the US for surgery to remove calcium deposits from his right Achilles' tendon, a chronic problem that saw him limp out of the preliminary rounds of the 110m last August during the Beijing Games.
Fans were heart-broken but kept faith with the local hero, whose leaping images seem to symbolize the country's continual success in crossing numerous economic, sporting and other hurdles despite the odds.
Yet it is just this kind of support that concerns coach Sun right now, as evidenced by the maddening crowds that waited for just a glimpse of Liu, a young member of China's top political advisory body, when he attended the CPPCC session last week in Beijing.
Liu only returned to China on March 8 - three months after being operated on - and officials do not want anything to jeopardize his recovery plans.
"The next step of his rehab has been worked out by a group of doctors in the US, led by Tom Clanton," said Sun. "We will not rush to get him training too hard. The main priority is rehabilitation."
Sun said he plans to stay in close contact with the US doctors and they will modify Liu's regime as and when necessary depending on how his ankle responds to training.
The hurdler will don his first pair of spikes since going under the knife this June, said Sun, while other sports bureaucrats begged for the media to show a little mercy.
"We hope the media and public give him more private time and space," said Feng Shuyong, vice-director of China's Athletics Administrative Center. "He is still in recovery and he needs some peace and quiet."
Feng said Liu's camp was taking an ultra-cautious approach.
"He will only take part in competitions once he has fully recovered, and nobody knows exactly when that is going to be," he said. "But things are going better than we had hoped, so he should be back in the game sometime this year."
(China Daily March 17, 2009)