Olympic Preview: Track and Field

There are only two things in Beijing bigger than 7-foot-6 hoops star Yao Ming: the Great Wall—and hurdler Liu Xiang. Liu's victory in the 110-meter hurdles in Athens was arguably the most surprising of China's 32 gold medals there, and unquestionably the most celebrated back home. No Chinese man had ever before won Olympic gold in track and field, and his triumph turned him into a folk hero, not to mention a pop icon. Liu's face is splashed across billboards and milk cartons, turning him into a one-man metaphor for China's emerging athletic and economic supremacy. The nation is poised for a coronation—make that a deification—on Aug. 21 if Liu can repeat his triumph. But there are some unexpected hurdles in his path. For one, Liu has to prove he's recovered from a hamstring injury that forced him out of a race in June. The bigger worry is Dayron Robles, a 21-year-old Cuban who has blossomed this year and broke Liu's world record. Now a nation frets that Aug. 21 could instead be a day of national mourning.