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If ever an individual was the shape of things to come, it is Liu Xiang. In the absence from Friday night's men's 110m final of 1996 champion Allen Johnson, Liu has become the gold medal favourite.

Pressure enough for a 21-year-old, but if Liu were to win he would become the first Chinese male athlete to win an Olympic track gold. Given the success of a relatively small nation such as Greece in their home Olympics, that probably presages sacks full of track and field medals in Beijing in four years' time.

In Thursday night's semi-final Liu got away well and went hurdle-for-hurdle with Canada's Charles Allen until the seventh, when he eased up knowing he was safe with 5m remaining. That allowed Maurice Wignall of Jamaica to pass him but Liu will not be so accommodating on Friday night in a field that also includes defending champion Anier Garcia.

“I didn't give my best as I want to keep it all for the final,” he said. China has had some track success before through Wang Junxia, who won the women's 5,000m gold at the Atlanta Olympics, but her relationship with the controversial coach Ma Junren left unanswered questions, as did her remarkable times, which have never since been approached. But Liu has escaped similar censure.

Liu comes from Shanghai but trains in Beijing, where he is a student of sports management. He began athletics life as a high jumper but felt he lacked the necessary explosive power for success, so he switched to the hurdles. According to Chinese media in Athens, he is already a superstar at home, since he is successful in an event not hitherto seen as an Asian speciality.

He surged into the elite ranks when he broke the long-standing world junior record of the legendary Renaldo Nehemiah, with 13.12sec in 2002.

He took a senior silver medal in the 60m hurdles at the world indoor championships in Birmingham last year, and repeated that feat, though much faster, in Budapest earlier this year. But much more impressive was the bronze he won in the interim at the more fiercely contested outdoor World Championships in Paris last year.

That is likely to be repeated this year, since he has advanced to the verge of the elusive 13sec barrier, with two 13.06sec clockings, another national record. After Wednesday's quarter-finals, he said: “I'm sorry about Allen Johnson, I've always been a fan of his and I really like him. It's a pity I cannot compete against him.”

Johnson had already reciprocated prior to the Games, by saying that Liu was the man to beat. Since they share the nine fastest times of the season, that is now even more the case. Liu stands on the verge of making history, as the vanguard of what is sure to be a tidal wave of talent by 2008.

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