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Athlete in pain, country in tears

This was the Great Wail of China.

As hurdler Liu Xiang hobbled out of the Bird's Nest Stadium -- volunteers wept openly, a female journalist cried in the mixed zone and his coach sobbed at the most extraordinary press conference of the Olympics -- a nation shared his pain.

"We were looking forward to watching him run," said Wang Qingchi, a man in his 60s who lives near the Bird's Nest. "In competitions there are victories and defeats; you never know if he can win the gold medal or not. If he competed, we wouldn't have minded even if he had lost. But he didn't even race. This is a big let down."

There was no athlete -- not Michael Phelps or Usain Bolt or any pixie gymnast -- who meant more to these Olympics than the 110-meter hurdler from Shanghai. To some observers the Olympics are basically a track meet surrounded by the other carnival acts, and squarely in the middle of the big top, the epicenter of the Games, was a 25-year-old Chinese hurdler who did not make it over even one hurdle. He was not done in by the super weight of expectations and pressure that had haunted him the very moment he had breasted the finish line in Athens as the first Chinese track-and-field gold medalist, but by the all-too-human breakdown of his body.

Liu had a flare-up of Achilles tendinitis he's battled off and on for six years and pain from a protruding bone in his right heel over the weekend. That forced him out of his first-round heat, despite his resolve and the best efforts of the doctors and masseurs and all the king's men who attended him on a Monday of mourning. Given Liu's almost totemic significance here, his absence eviscerates the final week of these Olympics, searing a host country that had a huge psychic investment in one athlete. China's dominance in these home Games might have cushioned the blow, but medals on the track are world medals, the ones -- unlike table tennis or weightlifting or diving, for example -- that every country chases. The defending Olympic champion reinforced China's growing sense of itself, proved that it could meet, and beat, Westerners on their terms.

He was a symbol of Chinese accomplishment and possibility, an extension of the nation's best self. Certainly there are people in this vast land who were beyond the long reach of the Olympics -- all 1.3 billion Chinese really couldn't give a damn about a guy who jumps over hurdles, could they? -- but no other Olympic athlete approached his status. As reported by the Xinhua, the official state news agency, an online poll earlier this month revealed 70 percent of Chinese fans would calmly face a Liu loss. The tacit corollary is 30 percent of the population -- people like Wang Qingchi -- wouldn't be as sanguine, which, if your abacus is working, is, well, a whole lot of folks.

Liu was everywhere in Beijing, yet Liu was nowhere. His face was slapped on billboards at the Capital Airport, portal to the Olympics, and throughout this sprawling city of 17 million. But it was a two-dimensional figure staring down from the posters, an idea as much as an athlete. Somehow, he simultaneously managed to be ubiquitous and as visible as Bigfoot since pulling out of one race in the United States and false starting in another 10 weeks ago. Liu had run just two races in recent months, including a ho-hum 13.18 in a pre-Olympic test race at the Bird's Nest in May. During his absence, a strutting Cuban named Dayron Robles, a Bolt wannabe, had snatched away Liu's world record by .01.

There was a palpable sense of angst about Liu's chances among the Chinese, reinforced by headlines like "Injured Liu vs. Terrifying Opponent" that, Monday, graced the China Daily, a feeling that hardly was assuaged by Liu's relative seclusion. Until moving into the Athletes' Village last Saturday night, he had been staying in the General Sports Administration headquarters in the southern part of the city. There were reports he was training and playing cards with his track-and-field teammates -- one card game translated as "Beating down the landlord" -- and there were glimpses of insight and news on his Web site, http://liuxiangsports.cn, which first indicated the heel, and not the hamstring, was his most pressing concern. But mostly he was cocooned until he stepped onto the track at 11:43 a.m.

There was a roar from the usual 90,000 in the National Stadium when he entered for the sixth and final first-round heat and began to prepare for a run that was hopeless. If 90 percent of life is showing up, this clearly was the other 10 percent. "Under the intense scrutiny of the Olympic Games, with this kind of injury, the pain that the athlete has to go through is not something that you can just overcome mentally and endure," said Feng Shyuong, China's national track coach. "But when he walked into the call room, his expression was firm and resolute. He decided he was going to go for it, to do everything he can."

Liu ran two hurdles, sidestepped another and dropped to the track, hunched over in obvious discomfort. He clutched his right heel. Liu stayed on the track for perhaps a minute, then limped back to the blocks, stripped off his warm-ups and put on his singlet. The crowd was chanting "Liu Xiang, jia you!" (Liu Xiang, add fuel!). He settled into the blocks, took a few steps when the gun sounded -- a false start -- but pulled up a second time. There was no bravado now, no final effort. He ripped his race number off his hip and hobbled into the tunnel, a broken icon.

"All the Chinese athletes are under a lot of pressure this time," Zhang Zhe, an 18-year-old from Shadong who was in Beijing for the Games, would say outside the stadium. "But we understand Liu Xiang even if he doesn't do well."

Less than a half-hour later during a press conference -- as the motor-drive cameras whirred -- Sun Haiping, his personal coach, offered an apology to the media. He would later break down, the only Sun in China on a day when a nation's dream could not find two good legs to stand on.

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