After five months of close-door training, China's athletics star Liu Xiang will run his first race of the new season in the world indoor championships in Valencia, Spain, on Saturday.
Competing against him might be the toughest challenger, Dayron Robles, in the year's Olympic Games when he defends his title in north Beijing's Olympic Stadium.
The Cuban has showed stunning form this indoor season, winning seven out of eight races. He set a personal best of 7.33 seconds in Dusseldolf, Germany, which is also the second best in history, only after Briton Colin Jackson's world record of 7.30.
"During the winter training, we have made some preparation for the world indoor championships," said Sun Haiping, Liu's long-time coach. "I think Liu Xiang has improved a lot mentally and physically."
Liu said that they spent 40 percent of the training time preparing for the Valencia race and 60 percent for the Olympic Games.
"If everything goes smooth, I believe that he can improve his personal best. I think he can run inside 7.40 seconds," Sun said.
Liu's personal best in the 60 meters race is 7.42 seconds. Sun said that if this time has been bettered, his outdoor results is sure to be improved later.
"When he ran 7.42 in 60, he set the 110 world record of 12.88. So if he runs better in 60, he will run faster in 110," the coach said.
Liu arrived in Madrid on Monday and has been training in the Spanish capital. It is the second time that he has been in Madrid. He crashed midway through the race in the World Cup six years ago.
After winning the gold medal at the Athens Olympic Games four years ago, Liu has become China's most famous sports star. He was mopped by fans and media everywhere he went in the country.
"The Chinese people and media expect him to win every race, big or small," Sun said.
But Sun, who turned Liu from a high jumper to a hurdler, said that he feels less pressure ahead of the Beijing Olympics than four years ago.
"I smoke less nowadays, but before the Athens Olympics, I smoke three packages a day. I thought too much about the Olympic Games at that time. I had to stay very late," he said.
With five months to go before the Beijing Olympics, Sun said that he feels calm, although the whole nation expects the highest from him and Liu Xiang.
"We will try our best, but I hope that everybody will understand us if we fail to retain the champion," Sun said. "You know it is competitive sports. It is just 10 plus seconds. Everything can happen and nobody is sure to win."
Liu, 25, has won almost everything in the past four years. He set the world record in Lausanne, Switzerland, in 2006, and won the title for the first time in the world championships last year.
"His biggest challenger in the Beijing Olympic Games is himself," Sun said. "He must be mentally strong and keep confident."
(Xinhua News Agency March 6, 2008)