China's Track Superstar Drops Out

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David J. Phillip / AP

China's Liu Xiang on the track at the Aug. 18 men's 110-m hurdles, minutes before dropping out with an injury

It was the race all of China — and, no, this is not journalistic hyperbole — was waiting for. On Aug. 18, under a hazy Beijing sky, Chinese megastar Liu Xiang was supposed to cruise to victory in heat six of the 110-m hurdles' first round. His competitors were, frankly, uninspiring — the man with the second fastest personal best, after Liu's 12.88 sec., was a Dutchman who had clocked in a relatively leisurely 13.35 sec. This was going to be the moment of glory for a man for whom a Beijing gold medal was the foremost wish among the Chinese people, according to a nationwide poll. A sea of Chinese flags waved. The Bird's Nest stadium thrummed with expectation.

But when the starting gun went off, Liu was missing from Lane 2. Minutes earlier, during a warm-up set of hurdles, Liu had grabbed his right leg, wincing in pain. As the 25-year-old returned to the starting blocks, his face was clenched in a grimace. The nearly 91,000-strong crowd, which had gathered at the Bird's Nest stadium to watch China's most beloved Olympic athlete, couldn't see Liu's contorted facial expression, so his fans continued to wave their national flags. Then, a false start. Liu took a few brave steps, but his leg seemed to crumple. Instead of returning to the blocks for another try, he slowly limped off the track. The TV cameras, which had nosed their way into the face of many a disgraced, disappointed athlete, kept a respectful distance. As a nation waited, Liu, icon of the Beijing Olympics and face of countless advertising billboards, sat backstage rubbing his leg. His race went on without him.

A Greek named Konstadinos Douvalidis won the heat with a time of 13.49 sec., but probably few in the stadium could recount that result. On Aug. 18, even though China had already surpassed its 2004 Athens golden haul by three medals, the nation was paralyzed with shock. Even the announcers on Chinese television didn't know what to say, letting silence wash over the airwaves. In postrace news wrap-ups, at least two Chinese journalists choked up, unable to describe what had just happened. The violin strains that accompanied montages of Liu's Olympic journey felt more suited to a state leader's funeral than to a race averted.

After winning a surprise gold medal in the 110-m hurdles in Athens four years ago, Liu morphed from amiable jock into national stud. In 2006 he shattered the event's world record with his 12.88 time. As an Asian athlete competing in a klieg-light track event — not an international sideline sport like badminton or table tennis or synchronized diving — Liu came to personify the Chinese nation's rising ambitions. The pressure for a golden repeat in China's Games must have been overwhelming.

Before the opening ceremony on Aug. 8, there was frenzied speculation in the Chinese blogosphere about who would carry China's flag and who would light the Olympic flame. The two obvious candidates were hoops star Yao Ming and hurdling legend Liu. When Yao loped in front of the massive Chinese Olympic team with the Chinese flag held aloft, the audience naturally thought Liu would carry the final torch. But that honor went instead to retired gymnast and sports-clothing tycoon Li Ning. Liu didn't even march with the Chinese Olympic delegation. Where was he?

Earlier this spring, Liu had disappeared from public view, nursing a sore hamstring that led him to pull out of a May race and triggered another injury to his Achilles tendon. By the start of the summer, the protective cocoon around the hurdler had reached epic proportions. In June, Dayron Robles, a bespectacled Cuban, shaved one-hundredth of a second off of Liu's world record. The Chinese was going into the Beijing Olympics as the underdog. (Robles easily won his Beijing heat less than an hour before Liu was scheduled to compete, while medal contender Terrence Trammell of the U.S. failed to finish his race because of an injured leg.)

At a press conference shortly after Liu pulled out, Liu's coach Sun Haiping, who has mentored the Shanghai-born athlete since he was a child, dissolved into tears. Dabbing his eyes with a tissue, he described how Liu's hamstring and Achilles tendon had caused excruciating pain and how sports hospital staff had tried intensive massage to heal the injuries. But it was of no use. The throbbing, exacerbated by a training session two days before, was so severe that the hurdler was shivering during rehab treatments. Liu was determined to compete unless the pain was "intolerable," said Feng Shuyong, China's head athletics coach. Apparently, it was. Mighty Liu Xiang had dropped out.