The two most memorable moments of star hurdler Liu Xiang's debut at the Bird's Nest last week had little to do with him crossing the finish line. They were his problems leaving the starting blocks.
But despite his two false starts (one in the semifinal and another in the final), Liu claimed an easy victory in the final, finishing in 13.18 seconds, the world's third fastest result so far this year.
The relaxed world record holder and Olympic champion said his first false start was a deliberate attempt to amuse the spectators. But the second one, during the final race, may be cause for concern in Liu's gold-medal quest in August.
"I didn't mean to do it," Liu admitted after the race on Saturday. "I just wanted to start with the gun, but I started out a bit too early."
At the Indoor World Championships earlier this year, Liu had the fastest reaction time in winning his first indoor world title. He was off the blocks so quickly that it confused Cuba's Dayron Robles, Liu's toughest competitor who was in the next lane. Robles thought Liu made a false start and was slow to follow, forcing him to settle for last place in the final.
Liu's coach Sun Haiping said a slow gun was to blame for Lui's second false start in the test event, which he said was a sort of gamble on Liu's part.
"International race starters are different than the Chinese ones when it comes to firing the starting pistol," Sun said. "The international officials are quick on the trigger, while the Chinese are a little bit slow."
That may create problems for Liu at the Beijing Olympic since Chinese officials will start the races.
"This incident sounded alarm bells for us. We are going to have to arrange something in training to counteract this so he can get used to the Chinese way and avoid any problems at the Olympics," Sun said.
The slow starter also drew the attention of officials from the International Athletics Association Federation (IAAF).
Technical delegate Cesar Moreno Bravo said the starters at the test events were not very experienced, but they will be better prepared for the Games by practicing in the test events.
Liu was clearly the main draw to the Bird's Nest for the four-day event. His three rounds of races drew nearly 60,000 spectators to the stadium each night.
His every movement - from warming up to crossing the finish line - inspired screams from the crowd. His new tracksuit, which exposed much of his back, also drew plenty of attention from the female fans. But the young hurdler's focus was solely on the track.
"Athletes compete with their power, but not their attire," Liu joked about his jersey, the design of which should be finalized in the coming months.
"Everyone is shouting my name and it put a lot of pressure on me. But I love the noise of crowds in the stadium and even more noise at the Olympics would make me excited."
The test event at the Bird's Nest will be Liu's only chance to try out the Olympic venue before the Games. But it's not only the track he'll need to get used to - it's the atmosphere and the swarming media as well.
"The atmosphere was very good," Liu said in an after-race interview in front of the CCTV camera. "The whole process of the competitions has reached the international standards, but the interview zone is too long and there are too many interviews after each round of the race."
Hundreds of journalists came to the Bird's Nest to see Liu run, and scores waited eagerly for him in the mixed interview zone after each race.
Coach Sun also complained that the long interview session affected Liu's regular cool-down time.
Liu said he could adjust himself to the pressures he will face in August.
"The pressure has nothing to do with anyone else, only myself," he said. "I have the strength to win and the key point is to remain calm. I won't think too much about the results, just to do well during the whole procedure. I hope the Bird's Nest will be the second birthplace of my dreams."
Next week, Liu will go to the US to compete against other world-class hurdlers such as Dominique Arnold and Terrence Trammell.
"They are the last events before the Olympics and the purpose for me there is to test out my utmost strength," said Liu, who will come back to Beijing for the final stage of Olympic preparation in the middle of June.
"I will wait and see how well I can do."
(China Daily May 28, 2008)