Hurdler's Olympic Injury Breaks China's Heart

Liu Xiang, widely touted in China as headed for gold, winced before dropping out of the competition because of a problem with his Achilles tendon.
Liu Xiang, widely touted in China as headed for gold, winced before dropping out of the competition because of a problem with his Achilles tendon. (By Jonathan Newton -- The Washington Post)
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By Maureen Fan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, August 19, 2008

BEIJING, Aug. 18 -- Tens of thousands of people had come to glimpse China's megastar hurdler at a mere qualifying heat Monday. The anticipation was so great that, at first, when spectators saw a wincing Liu Xiang pull out of the race, there was only stunned silence.

Then, after it became clear that Liu was injured, that his hopes for Olympic glory had been ruined, the nation's pain set in abruptly. At a news conference, Liu's coach burst into tears explaining to the international media how his star pupil had been "trying to hold on, exerting himself to his utmost." When Sun Haiping added that Liu could barely stand before the race, despite the assistance of three doctors, Chinese reporters began sobbing as well.

Tears were followed by anger. Although the general coach of China's athletics team said Liu was forced to drop out because of a recurring problem with his Achilles tendon, droves of fans criticized the hurdler online, accusing the 25-year-old Shanghai native of letting the nation down. He "stained the motherland" by not finishing the heat, some said, adding that he should have crawled on his hands and knees if necessary.

Liu was China's hope for gold in the 110-meter hurdles, but his failure to qualify for the finals showed that he represented so much more. His gold-medal performance in Athens four years ago had made history in China -- which had never before won gold in a track and field event -- and proved that the Chinese could shine in sports traditionally dominated by the West. On Monday, in a single moment at the Bird's Nest stadium, it was as if the nation's pride and honor had been snatched away.

Liu's perseverance -- showing up to compete despite the pain -- raised questions about the enormous pressure placed on him by coaches, the public and even the country's leaders. Pictures of him have been splashed across magazines and billboards, his every move followed in the news media.

The hurdler's disappointment was so great that Xi Jinping, President Hu Jintao's likely successor as Communist Party leader, sent Liu a note of condolence Monday, according to the state-run New China News Agency.

Beijing seemed to be in mourning, as video clips of the tearful news conference with Liu's coach spread on the Internet. National sports commentators resorted to frenzied hyperbole.

"At noon, the collective sigh of the Chinese people became a hurricane which attacked Chinese sports heavily in one minute. The whole country lost its breath in that moment," sports commentator Li Tong blogged.

For decades, China has been known mainly for its skill at "small ball" sports such as table tennis and badminton. Liu had become a symbol of potential in other sports.

"Yao Ming is just as famous, but nobody expects him to win a gold medal," said Zhang Ming, a professor of international studies at People's University. "Liu Xiang's big breakthrough in track and field is not only for China, but all of East Asia. . . . His win in Athens helped eliminate a deep inferiority complex in Chinese people's hearts."

Liu himself wanted badly to run on Monday, his coaches said, but his face was contorted in pain even while he was warming up. After the race, he could be seen on stadium screens limping off the field, down a tunnel and into an empty area, where he sat down with his back against the wall, his head in his hands, alone.

"Liu Xiang will not withdraw unless the pain is intolerable, unless he has no other way out," said Feng Shuyong, general coach of China's athletics team and president of the Chinese track federation.

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