EUGENE, Ore. — If all had gone according to plan, of course, Liu Xiang would have repeated as Olympic champion in the 110-meter hurdles before a delirious home crowd in 2008 in Beijing.
Fate had other plans. The image that lingers still, nearly four years later, is Liu, in the morning glare, pulling out of the heats, injured.
It is so desperately difficult to recover from an injury as severe as the torn Achilles tendon that sidelined one of the great hurdlers of this, or any, time. But Liu served notice Saturday, and emphatically, that he is back.
Liu not only won the Prefontaine Classic against a stacked field — essentially everyone expected to be in the Olympic final save Cuba’s Dayron Robles — he did so in a wind-aided 12.87 seconds.
That equaled Robles’ world-record time, set four years ago in the Czech Republic.
Liu is not especially given to public displays of emotion. But here, given the dominating nature of what he had done, given the time, he went windmilling around the track.
It wasn’t showboating. It was more child-like glee.
“I love Eugene,” Liu said later, speaking through a translator. “I like all the crowd here. So I am happy not only because of my time.”
American Aries Merritt, the 2012 world indoor champ, finished second, in 12.96. The 2011 outdoor champ, Jason Richardson of the United States, finished third, in 13.11.
Dexter Faulk, another American, finished fourth, in 13.12.
David Oliver, the 2008 Olympic bronze medalist from the United States who came to Eugene last year having won 18 of 19 races, who won here last year in 12.94, took fifth, in 13.13. He insists he is fully recovered from the injuries that slowed him during the latter part of 2011.
Robles had been due to run here but, on Thursday, it was announced that he would be a no-show, purportedly because of visa problems. It was also announced that he would make the race this coming week in New York.
The Pre is a Nike event. This New York race is an adidas event. Robles is sponsored by adidas. Whether it was geopolitics, or shoe politics, that kept Robles out of Oregon — such things are as unknowable as grassy knolls.
If Merritt was considered by some a sleeper — no more. He had said in the lead-up to this race that he expected it would take a 12.93, or better, to win, adding, ‘I have training sessions when I’m running world-record pace.”
Richardson was named 2011 world champion after a bang-bang sequence near the finish line in Daegu. Robles crossed the line first. But he was then disqualified, video showing that he had twice touched Liu’s arm going over the ninth and 10th hurdles. That elevated Richardson to first, Liu to second.
At the 2012 world indoors in Istanbul, Robles didn’t run. Merritt won. Liu finished second.
A few weeks ago in Shanghai, Liu won in 12.97. That night, Oliver ran second, Richardson third, Merritt fourth.
“He’s just amazing,” Richardson said Saturday of Liu. “It almost goes without saying.”
What makes Liu’s performance in Eugene all the more amazing is this:
The wind was “wind-aided” because, at 2.4 meters per second, it was a tailwind. Hurdlers hate this. This is simple logic. A tailwind pushes a hurdler closer to each of the hurdles. So the fact that Liu equaled the world record under these conditions is even more impressive, not less, as “wind-aided” might otherwise suggest.
Roger Kingdom, the 1984 and 1988 Olympic gold medalist, has a wind-aided 12.87 in the books as well — in Barcelona, on Sept. 10, 1989. (The wind that day: 2.6.) What that means, in plain English: it’s not a world record but no one has ever run faster than Liu ran Saturday in Eugene.
Liu understands English reasonably well. But when he meets the press at meets such as these, he typically answers Chinese reporters first and then responds to English speakers through a translator. The answers delivered in translation are necessarily filtered and more bland than they might, perhaps, be in the original.
Even so, you know he knows he’s back. Come London, watch out for Liu Xiang.
“Of course I am happy,” he said. “But it is just a race. For me, I need to look forward.”