Traditionally, the most spectacular sound in sports is the utter silence of 80,000 people in a stadium the instant before the gun goes at the men's Olympic 100-meter final. There will be, however, a small modification for the 2008 Olympics.
In Beijing, the library quiet will be most profound before the start of the 110-meter hurdles, a race that has temporarily supplanted the 100 as the centerpiece of what -- despite track and field's doping scandals -- remains the backbone of the Games: Liu Xiang races Dayron Robles.
In the 112 years since Baron Pierre de Coubertin reinvented this sweaty carnival, no athlete ever has faced more pressure than Liu will in his homeland. For those who came in late, Liu won the 110-hurdles in Athens in 2004, becoming a national hero. Liu set a world record of 12.88 in '06. He also won the world championship in '07.
But apparently there is a shelf life on glory in China. Liu's coach was quoted in China Daily, the official English-language newspaper, as saying "officials from the State General Administration of Sport once told us that if Liu cannot win another gold medal in Beijing, all of his previous achievements will be meaningless."
In other words, 1.3 billion Chinese actually will give a damn. When Liu settles into the blocks, waiting for the gun, he can think about carrying the weight of the nation as he strides over the 10, 3½-foot hurdles. Don't stumble.
Robles is playing with house money -- or whatever it is Cuba uses to reward its medal winners. The 21-year-old broke Liu's world record by one-hundredth of a second, blistering a 12.87 in a meet in June in the Czech Republic. Now the Cuban insists Liu remains the Olympic (and home nation) favorite, throwing a few extra ounces of burden on his rival.
Liu, who split four races against Robles last year, false-started his way out of the Prefontaine meet this spring and wound up scratching from the New York Grand Prix because of a sore hamstring. This is never good.
China's currency is the Yuan, but it has adopted the gold standard this summer. China is counting on beating the U.S., Russia and any other pretenders to the top step of the podium, a feat that would represent national affirmation more than mere national pride.
As Igor Grinko, a Russian hired to coach Chinese rowers, told TheNew York Times this year, "One gold equals 1,000 silvers" in the minds of Chinese sports officials. The silver medalist becomes little more than the first loser, a fate that could await the leading track athlete in China's history.