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SHANGHAI (Reuters) - China will offer an emotional farewell to its newly-retired sports hero Liu Xiang at the Diamond League meeting on Sunday --and then hope desperately to witness a new athletics icon capable of replacing him.
Officials confirmed on Saturday there would be a special ceremony to honor 2004 Olympic sprint hurdles champion Liu, who announced his retirement last month, during the meeting in his home Shanghai Stadium.
It is likely to be a poignant occasion with even the man tipped to be Liu’s successor, former training partner Xie Wenjun, struggling to keep his emotions in check.
“I feel sad. Maybe I’ll cry in front of him,” he told a news conference on Saturday.
Xie is one of the top young athletes that China will be counting on to be the face of the 2015 world championships in Beijing, just as Liu was the poster boy for the Olympics there in 2008.
Yet even though Liu was beaten by injury in his home Games, his eventual historic career ‘triple crown’ of being world champion, Olympic champion and world record breaker makes him a hugely difficult act for any of his contemporaries to follow.
Indeed, when Xie and top long jumper Li Jinzhe were asked if they could cope with the pressure of being China’s next sports hero, each, rather comically, seemed keen to pass the awesome responsibility to the other.
Li, silver medalist at the world indoor championships last year, said: “Xie should take this responsibility as flag bearer for Chinese athletics because runners are more recognizable and are more likely to stir excitement in the fans.”
Xie then responded: “I personally believe Li has the best potential to become the next athletics icon. He’s very likely to win the Olympic gold in Rio.”
Certainly, Xie has his work most cut out to emulate the man he trained alongside for eight years. On Sunday, the Asian champion will have a measure of the magnitude of his task when he tackles world champion David Oliver and Olympic gold medalist Aries Merritt.
Both Americans said they would be privileged to be involved in the ceremony to hail their old rival Liu, described by Oliver as “one of the greatest hurdlers of all-time and a great ambassador for the sport on and off the track.”
editing by Justin Palmer