Some Hurdles Are Too High

By Thomas Boswell
Tuesday, August 19, 2008

BEIJING

Since the day Beijing was awarded the Olympics, these Games have been about China's national pride. Perhaps only the Chinese can grasp how it feels to have a history that is glorious when measured in millennia, mortifying when measured in centuries and suffused with suffering when measured in recent decades.

For seven years, China has diligently planned and constructed a way to express that vast, squelched national pride. The huge Olympic Green, with its glowing red Bird's Nest and its luminous blue Water Cube, has no rival. The budgetless Opening Ceremonies, with a city of 15 million illuminated by fireworks, was a national statement.

However, over the last four years, one deified athlete has come to symbolize the country in the public mind here: the slim, handsome hurdler Liu Xiang.

For 10 days, this Olympics surpassed itself for glory. No one has ever won as many gold medals at any Games as Michael Phelps. No one has ever run as fast as Usain Bolt.

On the 11th day, out of a clear sky, in a preliminary qualifier for the 110-meter hurdles, we may have seen the saddest and most burdened man in Olympic history: the injured Liu, now buried under 1.3 billion bodies.

For Americans to grasp how Liu felt, his jersey pulled up over his face in shame after an injured Achilles' heel knocked him out of the Games, we must change our frame of reference.

Liu is not just the 2004 Olympic champion and owner of the second-fastest time ever in his event. He wasn't just co-favorite with world record holder Dayron Robles. And he was not simply the only Chinese male to win a gold medal in track and field -- the centerpiece Olympic sport for which 91,000-seat stadiums are built.

Think of Liu another way: At these Games, Liu is China. How it got that way we Westerners may only guess.

But it is unlikely we will ever see an athlete in greater emotional pain, or a country that takes a loss more personally, or a cast of trainers and coaches who feel more devastated.

"Liu Xiang will not withdraw unless the pain is intolerable, unless he has no other way out," said China's national team coach Feng Shuyong. Liu's coach, Sun Haiping, broke down sobbing several times at a news conference.

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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