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Xu Haifeng, from fertilizer salesman to national hero

BEIJING (Reuters) - With 60 shots heard around the sporting world, former fertilizer salesman Xu Haifeng took his place in Olympic history and became a Chinese national hero.

As every Chinese schoolchild will tell you, Xu’s victory in the 50 meter free pistol shooting final at the 1984 Los Angeles Games earned the world’s most populous nation its first Olympic gold medal.

By claiming the first gold of the Games, Xu ensured China made an immediate impact on its return to the Summer Olympics after the 32-year absence caused by the controversy over the recognition of Taiwan.

Yet just over two years before his triumph, Xu was selling fertilizer in one of China’s poorer provinces, had just a week’s shooting experience and had not picked up a gun in a decade.

“I started shooting very late,” Xu told Reuters. “I graduated from high school in 1974 and was sent to the country (to farm) for four and a half years. In 1979 I was employed as a salesman by a country shop in Anhui.

“I sold many things -- cigarettes, sugar, wine, nails ... and finally chemical fertilizer.”

Xu thinks he may have inherited his sometime soldier father’s love of guns and, like most Chinese boys, had messed around with catapults growing up in southeast Fujian Province.

“In June 1982, I heard my former high school teacher was coaching the municipal shooting team and as I was very fond of shooting, I asked him to let me have a go,” added Xu, now 51.

“We had had one week of military training before we graduated from high school. It was the first time I had used a real gun and I finished number one in the school.”

PROVINCIAL CHAMPION

Within two months of taking up the sport, Xu was a provincial champion and in March 1983 he won his first national title, an achievement that won him a place in the national shooting team and in November 1983 the Olympic trials.

“There were six of us and I was very much the rookie,” Xu recalled. “So I never thought I’d make it to the Olympics. But unexpectedly I got through all the trials and was chosen.”

Despite going along “just to take part”, after more than two hours of his event in Los Angeles, it came down to four competitors.

“I did very well until the last 10 shots,” he said. “The spectators around me affected my concentration. I knew how many I’d got but nothing about the others’ results. But the gathering crowd hinted that I had done well.

“I sat down and took a short break. Finally, I got two nines and one 10 in my last three shots.”

In the days before electronic scoring the targets had to be checked and the scores calculated by officials.

“It took half an hour,” Xu said. “I waited and then finally the referee told me, ‘You have won. Please go and get your medal’.

“I felt suddenly relaxed, just like a huge stone hanging upon my heart had been removed.”

The reaction from his team mates and officials was euphoric, but that still did not prepare him for his reception back home.

“When I got back with a gold, I realized how significant it would be, it changed my life ever after,” he said.

“The great passion of the people was unbearable after I returned. Huge crowds welcomed me everywhere. I couldn’t eat or sleep properly. Meetings or celebrations lasted until midnight every day and early the next morning, I was woken up again.

“For about 20 days, I went to every place I’d ever been, from the sports administrations to the fertilizer shop, to say thanks to everybody.”

“It brought much more pressure,” Xu added. “I was expected to win everything afterwards. I’ve done everything differently since then because I am a public figure.”

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Although Xu went on to win many more titles at the Asian Games and world championships, nothing would top his golden moment in Los Angeles.

After retiring in 1994, he coached the Chinese women’s shooting team and again showed his golden touch.

“I regard the second biggest success in my career as the players I coached to Olympic golds,” he said. “I started coaching in February 1995 and one of my shooters, Li Duihong, took a gold in Atlanta in July 1996.”

Another of his charges, Tao Lu-na, collected the air pistol title in Sydney four years later.

Only four gold medals from a China team now under his full control in Athens in 2004, however, was deemed not good enough, however, and Xu was moved aside to take control of the modern pentathlon.

His gold medal was in the National Museum on Tiananmen Square alongside Deng Xiaoping’s shoes and the watch of China’s first astronaut Yang Liwei until it was closed for refurbishment.

“I’m quite pleased about the Beijing Games,” he said. “We bid twice for the Olympics and when we lost to Sydney with just two votes in 1993, I was there at Monte Carlo.”

Additional reporting by Liu Zhen

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