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Some Hurdles Are Too High

Time will tell whether Liu and his coaches truly thought that he had any hope of racing on Monday. What's certain is that, whatever his condition and whenever his injury occurred, Liu absolutely had to make an appearance to prove -- by falling down, by attempting a restart after it was clear he could never clear the first hurdle, by kicking a wall in anger numerous times -- that he was really hurt.

This, remember, is a country that, for generations, has seldom known what was real and what was propaganda, which of the missing were alive or dead, what official stories were true and which complete fabrications.

Even after Liu's photo gallery full of misery was on view, large numbers of Chinese -- on Internet sites and in media samplings -- felt more anger than sadness. Some said he should have crawled around the track rather than walk off.

And A-Rod thinks playing for the Yankees is tough.

If Phelps, who slipped and broke his wrist last winter, had gotten hurt and never swam here, it would have stunned and saddened America. Few would have been angry.

But this is a nation so obsessed with making an impression, and not embarrassing itself, that it has a government department dedicated to controlling the weather during the Olympics -- and it may actually be working. Military-complex security has shielded the Games from demonstrators. Every food stand is triple-staffed, every media center double-sized and, many times, a single reporter rides in a bus with 31 empty seats. For hospitality and efficiency, China has super-sized it all.

However, only one athlete has become synonymous with a "successful" Olympics: Liu, "China's Flying Man." A Nike TV commercial here, with several famous athletes, ends with the hurdler saying, "I am Liu Xiang. Who are you?"

As this Olympics has progressed, the need for a Liu win has increased because, along with all China's successes -- including a 39-22 lead over the United States in gold medals -- there have been a comparable number of blows to China's self-image.

The Western media certainly have, with plenty to say about authoritarian government and human rights abuses. President Bush joined the chorus with public criticism of China before arriving here -- and getting some boos at the Opening Ceremonies. China has been chastised for everything from not keeping its "increased openness" promises to the International Olympic Committee to, perhaps, forging passports for underage gymnasts.

This Olympic Games have been a worldwide weighing of pros and cons for a nation that thinks it's on the verge of greatness. Everything, down to hotel occupancy rates, is fair game. Always sensitive to criticism from outsiders, China feels picked on.

As the Games wind down, the Chinese know that their medal hopes will dwindle dramatically. In track and field, always a weak suit, the hosts still have a few medal contenders. But none like Liu.

In recent centuries, China's self-esteem has been its Achilles' heel. It's been a long time since the invention of gunpowder and moveable type. This Olympics was going to change that. And to a significant degree, it already has.

However, just as West can learn from East, the opposite is also true. In the same heats in which Liu pulled up lame, American Terrence Trammell, whose medal chances were considered almost as good as Liu's, pulled a hamstring and couldn't finish.

Trammell did not feel any shame. "I tried to see if I could just take the first hurdle, but I couldn't," he said. "I did everything I needed to do, and I couldn't have done anything else."

So did Liu. If any, or all, of the 1.3 billion people who are now piled on his back would get off, we can get on with the Games.

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