Shanghai: Liu Xiang, still struggling to rid himself of the injury that has dogged him since the Beijing Olympics, is not even the best high hurdler in China any more on the evidence of Sunday`s Diamond League meeting in Shanghai.
The former 110 metres hurdles Olympic and world champion finished third behind Olympic bronze medallist David Oliver and, even more surprising, his compatriot Shi Dongpeng.
Such is his low level of expectation now, however, that far from being downcast by being so soundly beaten -- Oliver ran 12.99 seconds to his 13.40 -- the 26-year-old was encouraged by his performance in his home city.
"13.40 is a good time for me now. I was very happy to make that time today," the 26-year-old told reporters.
"My foot was definitely not right. For me it was quite a challenge. Competition relies on training, systematic, intensive and high quality training. But I have had none."
This was all a far cry from the days when Liu was in his pomp, winning gold at the 2004 Athens Olympics, setting the then world record of 12.88 seconds in Lausanne in 2006 and taking the world title in Osaka a year later.
His secret was not the devastating power of hulking Americans like Oliver, but the quick feet and sublime technique that allowed him to overhaul the bigger men over the 10 hurdles.
The decline began during messy preparations for what was supposed to be his finest hour, the 2008 Olympics, and such was secrecy that surrounded him, speculation ran wild that he was either mentally or physically damaged.
The pain etched on his face as he left the Bird`s Nest after failing to start the Aug. 18 heats settled that debate and an Achilles injury took the blame for ending Chinese hopes of watching one of their own winning gold at the arena.
It took six months for a decision to be made that he should undergo surgery on his foot and since then his recovery has been so slow that suspicions have resurfaced about his mental fragility.
"I sometimes feel I am even confused about myself," Liu added. "Each athlete experiences ups and downs ... From being undefeatable to now eventually losing to one after another who I had never lost to, it is tough."
"But I have to deal with it, the mind set."
Shi was one of those who had never beaten Liu before Sunday night.
"I feel happy for Shi," Liu told reporters. "Previously he had had many chances to beat me but he just missed out on all of them. It has not been easy for him until now."
Shi, who ran 13.39 to edge Liu into third, seemed to be quite enjoying the biggest moment of his career.
"I was so exhausted during the final sprint for the line, I beat Liu thanks to my longer neck," he joked.
Shi, a decent Asian level hurdler, is not about to replace his team mate as Olympic-obsessed China`s great track gold medal hope and Liu seems reconciled to carrying that burden for another couple of years until the 2012 Olympics.
"I feel the London Olympics is a distant story," he said. "I just need to start with the most trivial things in my training without expecting too much for London. Nothing else."
"But still have confidence in myself. The key thing is to dig out what I have done wrong and correct it."