On the streets of Beijing, the face of China's first male Olympic track champion, Liu Xiang, is omnipresent. It is nearly impossible to walk one block without seeing his chiseled grin beaming down from a billboard. As a spokesman for Nike, Coca-Cola, and Cadillac, one would think Liu is set for life.
But in his final sprint toward the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Liu is experiencing more pressure than ever before.
After winning the 110-meter hurdles in Athens in 2004, Liu barely had time to enjoy the fruits of his victory before his countrymen began inquiring how he planned to defend his title on home turf four years later.
Now the Beijing Games are just 15 days away, and the expectations for Liu, one of China's most famous athletes, are epic. Today, the China Daily warned, "Defeat would be a disaster for him, for China and for his many admirers."
China's native son, known to deliver his best performances at major track competitions, can't help but feel the pressure himself. Today, he expressed his stress to the China Daily.
"I will try my best, but I still have to live after this period. I think that when I retire it will be better."
When asked if Chinese athletes feel more pressure to win gold medals in Beijing, He Yi, the deputy director of Competitive Sports Departments in the Beijing Sports Bureau, smiled.
"We are the host city of the host country!" He said. "For athletes here, that's even more encouragement to do well."
To Win Pride for One's Country
The intense hope for Liu to produce gold originates far beyond his adoring fans. The Chinese government measures the nation's athletic success by the team's performance at the Olympics.
Professor Susan Brownell, author of "Beijing's Games: What the Olympics Mean to China," says the expectations for these athletes is different. "Chinese athletes are under an incredible amount of pressure this year because of the notion that they should win glory for the nation," Brownell said.
There is a commonly used phrase in Chinese, "wei guo zheng guang," which means to win pride for one's country. According to Brownell, "That really does mean a lot for Chinese athletes."
The burden of China's history is said to weigh heavily on the shoulders of Chinese athletes. From the Opium Wars in the 1840s to the Communist revolution in 1949, China is sensitive to the idea that it has suffered at the hands of the West and Japan.
"It's my impression that most Chinese athletes take their duty to win glory for the nation seriously," Brownell said. "It has to do with the way they learn the history of their country."
According to Brownell, an athlete's victory at the Olympics is a "kind of redemption for the kind of humiliation and suffering that China has experienced in the past."
"Most Chinese people do understand their history that way and they do take the past seriously," she said.
Lifetime Perks for Champions Who Bring Home Gold
The government is keeping a close eye on how many gold medals the People's Republic can garner on home soil. Those who deliver will be handsomely rewarded.
"The country's [sports] goals are oriented towards the Olympics…we only count gold medals," He Yi explained to ABC News.
"The goal is to get the best."
For Chinese athletes, the gold medals mean far more than just the usual fame and endorsements which American athletes receive at home.
Unlike in the United States, in China standing atop an Olympic podium also means cash bonuses and perks for life. Younger athletes receive preferential admission to prestigious universities as well.
"If you win a gold medal, the government will provide a relatively high financial allowance. This way, when they go to college or retire, the government has provided a guarantee," said He Yi.
"Maybe they will get apartments," observed Brownell. "There are a lot of perks that go along with winning that gold medal that can affect your future career and your future life."
But there is a clear delineation between gold and other medals. The government's most lucrative incentive policies are for gold medalists only.
"Eighth place and other places…of course everyone's a hero. But when we come back, the benefits and rewards will be far less [than gold]," explained He.
Out to Beat the United States?
On Tuesday, officials said that China is aiming to improve upon the team's performance in Athens.
It comes as no surprise that the team's ultimate goal is to win more gold medals at home next month. In 2004, the People's Republic took home the third most medals over all and swept up 32 gold medals, besting every country except the United States, which won 36.
But in recent weeks, the Chinese have also attempted to play down their expectations for gold. Officials and fans alike have expressed their interest in high-level performances, not necessarily podium appearances. Whether they come in first or sixth, they say, doesn't matter.
"The charm of elite sport is its uncertainty," Zhang Haifeng, spokesman for the Chinese Sports Ministry, told a news conference in Beijing.
"We do have a target," Zhang continued. "That is to rank among the top nations in the medals table. We managed that…in Athens and we hope to do better in Beijing."
Vice Sports Minister Feng Jianzhong stated that for the general medal count, "the more, the better."
As for Liu Xiang, hurdling towards another Olympic gold in August will be a tall order. Plagued with an injury in his right leg and stiff competition from Cuban track star Dayron Robles, Liu could end up standing second highest on the podium.