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.