BEIJING -- Marcel van der Westen is gunning for his place in history, but that spot might end up being something he didn't quite anticipate.
Anticipating is precisely what thrust van der Westen into the annals of track trivia as the answer to this question: Who committed the false start in the 110-meter hurdles right before Liu Xiang, the man with the weight of China on his back, walked off the track under the agony of an Achilles tendon injury?
Van der Westen says he has been trying to anticipate the gun, because a recent injury set his training back, and he's trying to get any edge he can. In fact, he false started again in the second round of the hurdles Tuesday night at the Bird's Nest. The first false start from any runner is charged to the entire field, and any athlete who false starts after that is out. After van der Westen jumped the gun, Qatar's Mohammed Issa Al-Thawadi did the same, and was the second athlete, joining Liu, to walk off without competing following a van der Westen false start.
(Al-Thawadi had to walk through the mosh pit of an interview zone to leave the stadium, while Liu was afforded the luxury of bypassing reporters.) Van der Westen finished fourth in his heat in 13.48, and qualified for the semifinal by .03.
Van der Westen's injury occurred about a month ago, at a meet in Zurich. He was leading Anwar Moore of the U.S., a hurdler with a much faster personal best, when his lead leg hit the underside of the crossbar on the last hurdle. The hurdle toppled over, and van der Westen fell over it.
The 32-year-old pulled his 6-foot-4 frame up and jogged over to his coach, Lieve van Mechelen, who asked him, "What's that bump on your shoulder?" Just then, van der Westen started to feel a clicking above his left arm. His collarbone was broken. "But we have good surgeons [in the Netherlands]," van der Westen said. One of those surgeons put a plate and six screws in his shoulder, and a pale pink scar now clings like a vine to his collarbone, right above the tattoo of the Chinese character for "dragon." (He was born in the year of the dragon.)
With respect to his tiny and incidental role in Olympic history, the charismatic Dutchman says simply, "these things happen in big events."
Of course, there was no bigger event for Liu than the Beijing Games.
For van der Westen, who works three days a week as a tax lawyer -- "I think it's important to do other things in life," he says, adding jokingly, "maybe I can fix some of my prize money!" -- and only started hurdling in his 20s, the only pressure comes from himself. He was .02 shy of qualifying for the 2004 Olympics, and considering his recent three week training break, qualifying for the semifinal in Beijing would be a laudable feat. "But I think I'll have to run faster tomorrow [to make the final]," he says.
Look for him to get a good start.