Published August 06, 2013
BEIJING (AFP) – With the Liu Xiang era limping to a close, China's focus is squarely on Beijing 2015 as an emerging group of competitors test themselves at the world championships in Moscow.
Track and field hopes for the world's most populous nation have long rested on 110m hurdler Liu, who became China's first men's Olympic track and field champion at Athens 2004.
However, strikingly similar injury exits at Beijing 2008 and London 2012 -- both in the opening heat, and with the same Achilles problem -- appear to have all but ended the 30-year-old's career.
Now, the onus is on China's young stars as they prepare to welcome the world back to the famous Bird's Nest Olympic stadium for the next world championships in two years' time.
"China has a lot of top athletes, especially in the men's 110m hurdles," Xie Wenjun, 23, said at the Shanghai Diamond League meet in May, where he finished third behind reigning world champion Jason Richardson.
"Liu Xiang is not here, and we all hope he returns, but he is not the only one... we are also talented and can achieve very good results."
Xie's words were borne out in Shanghai, where his performance was not the only reason for Chinese officials to cheer. In the men's long jump, Li Jinzhe emerged victorious in a field including Olympic champion Greg Rutherford and Panama's Irving Saladino, the gold medallist at Beijing 2008.
And sprinter Zhang Peimeng, who has broken two national records in recent months, finished fourth in a strong men's 200m field behind reformed American dope cheat Justin Gatlin.
Meanwhile, China dominated last month's Asian championships with 16 gold medals, way ahead of the five garnered by second-placed Bahrain, and Japan and Saudi Arabia, who both claimed four. China's rise in athletics, helped by increasing input from foreign coaches, is unlikely to match its feats in swimming, where it is now an established power, in short order.
But the new hopefuls, often working under modern programmes rather than China's gruelling state training systems, are a world away from previous generations.
In the 1990s, Ma Junren's 'Ma's family army' of successful distance runners became infamous for their marathon-a-day training sessions and fuelled by concoctions including turtle blood
But just before the 2000 Olympics, several of his athletes were axed from the Chinese team over suspicious blood tests.
"I see a new generation that is more open, more transparent," Jos Hermens, who coached the legendary Ethiopian Haile Gebrselassie and who now works with the China Athletics Association, told AFP in Shanghai.
"Xie says he is shy, but he speaks English better than Liu Xiang. He is an open person, so the new generation is actually more looking into the world."
China finished seventh on the medals table at the last world championships in 2011, the top Asian nation ahead of their rivals Japan, who were joint 11th. Japan have outlined the modest target of one medal and five finalists in Moscow, where hammer-thrower Koji Murofushi, 38, the former Olympic champion, will defend his world title earned in 2011.
Sprinter Yoshihide Kiryu, 17, will be dreaming of becoming the first Asian to run the 100m in less than 10 seconds after clocking an unofficial 10.01 sec in April.
He said he is hoping to see how he measures up with 1.95 metres (six foot four) multiple Olympic champion Usain Bolt on the track in Moscow.
"I want to run alongside Bolt (at the worlds) and see how he is different from me," said Kiryu, who is 1.75 metres tall.
"I lack experience in competing on the big stage. I must gain more experience."