This was the Great Wail of China.
"We were looking forward to watching him run," said
There was no athlete -- not
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
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
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
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
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,"
Less than a half-hour later during a press conference -- as the motor-drive cameras whirred --