BEIJING Chinese sport officials have warned that world champion hurdler Liu Xiang's achievements will be rendered "meaningless" if he fails to win Olympic gold in Beijing next year, according to the athlete's coach.
"Officials from the State General Administration of Sports once told us if Liu could not win a gold in Beijing, all of his previous achievements would become meaningless," Friday's China Daily quoted Sun Haiping as saying.
"So we have to take everything possible into consideration to keep him in top form."
World record-holder Liu won gold in the 110m hurdles in Athens in 2004 and this year became China's first male track world champion in Osaka, Japan.
Liu, who remains China's best hope of track gold on home soil next year, said he felt the pressure of expectations.
"Much of the time, people don't just want me to win a medal, but to get gold. This kind of pressure is indeed very heavy," the 24-year-old told the Beijing News in a separate report.
"After all, there are currently many outstanding athletes in the 110m hurdles. Any of them could be number one."
Since clocking 12.88 to set the world record in June 2006, Liu has gone from strength to strength, winning nine titles in his last 12 meetings.
He has been nominated as one of three finalists in the running for the International Association of Athletics Federation's (IAAF) male athlete of the year, alongside America's Tyson Gay and Ethiopian Haile Gebrselassie.
But Dayron Robles of Cuba has emerged as a genuine threat to the Chinese hurdler's Olympic title defense, equaling his best time of 12.92 in 2007 and beating a rusty Liu comfortably on home soil at the Shanghai Grand Prix in September.
China's sports ministry has recently ratcheted up the pressure on the country's athletes.
In a rare departure from the official line of downplaying expectations, sports minister Liu Peng on Wednesday told athletes there was "room for China to improve" on its gold medal tally at a pre-winter training pep-talk in Beijing, local media reported.
Analysts have predicted that China will win 40 gold medals in Beijing, outstripping the 32 it took in Athens.
The ministry has also brought in psychologists to help athletes cope with the pressure of competing on home soil.
Liu, whose status as the pin-up boy of Chinese athletics has brought lucrative corporate endorsements and mobs of fans wherever he goes, also said he would be cutting out all public appearances in the run-up to the Olympics.
"Winter training will be closed and I'll be cut off from the outside world," Liu said.
"Moreover, I'll definitely not be participating in any commercial activities next year. My whole being will be devoted to preparing for the Olympics."
(Editing by Ossian Shine)