BEIJING Cathy Freeman believes Liu Xiang should treat the Beijing Olympics as another day in the office and ignore the pressure placed on him as China's leading track gold medal hope.
If anybody knows how the Olympic and world high hurdles champion Liu feels as the Games approach, it is the 35-year-old Australian Aborigine, who lit the cauldron at the opening ceremony of the Sydney Olympics before winning the 400 meters gold.
"For me, I couldn't afford to get too sentimental about how I made people feel, it's such a personal time in his life, he shouldn't compromise," she told Reuters in an interview.
"He's got to maintain his priorities, keep his perspective. He's already proven that he can perform under pressure and he should pretty much take that model and use it. It's just another day at the office...the emotion will just carry him through the Olympics."
As China's top track athlete, Liu is still one of the favorites to light the cauldron at the Beijing opening ceremony on August 8, even if his coach has said the 24-year-old would not have time for the rehearsals.
"If he were to walk into this room right now, I think I'd tell him to do what he's most comfortable with," said Freeman, in the Chinese capital to speak at the British School of Beijing's annual prize-giving.
"For me, I was absolutely honored. I didn't see it as a distraction or as a negative, I was so confident in my abilities as an athlete...there was nothing that was going to detract from my performance."
Last week Athletics Australia said its team would not be attending the opening ceremony in Beijing because of fears about the health risks from pollution, among other things.
"You have to respect the decisions that are made," Freeman said. "It's a little bit of a shame, because you're there to experience an Olympic Games...for first time athletes it's a huge shame, for someone going to their fourth or fifth Olympics, it's maybe not such a huge loss."
Since retirement, Freeman's passion has been the Catherine Freeman Foundation, which works with children in Palm Island, her mother's birthplace.
She also works with the Australian anti-doping agency and said she had been saddened by the fall of American Marion Jones, who won three gold medals in Sydney but lost them when she admitted last year to using steroids.
"Of course I was disappointed, of course. I'm an Olympic champion and I don't want people to think that I've gone down the same way as Marion has," she said.
"Marion's a friend of mine, I've always liked her. As human beings we all make mistakes, we all take the wrong road at times.
"Marion was the superstar of the Sydney Olympics and people like to see themselves mirrored in superstars, so when the star takes a fall, we all take a fall. But I know I can pride myself on my performances without drugs."
Freeman's role at the Sydney Games was credited with helping heal some of the historical divisions of the Australian nation.
She is aware, therefore, of how the Olympics can be a force for good and was saddened by the protests surrounding the Beijing torch relay earlier this year.
"Sport is supposed to be that language that transcends all differences, so we should allow ourselves that," she said.
"This is a movement where the poorest countries are able to be represented on an equal footing with the richest. The Olympics is the greatest sporting event in the world, we should not lose track of that.
"I only have to reflect back on the victory lap in Sydney, oh gee. The best in people really comes out and it's a really contagious energy. I wish we could bottle it, it would sell like hot cakes."
(Editing by John Mehaffey)
(For more stories visit our multimedia website "Road to Beijing" here; and see our blog at blogs.reuters.com/china)