It is hard to imagine a scenario where Ethiopian Haile Gebrselassie, perhaps the greatest distance runner ever, could pass through a crowd of hundreds of track and field reporters and not be stopped for a question.
But that's what happened at the Bird's Nest on Monday. It was a morning rife with the surreal, as Liu Xiang, the reigning Olympic 110 hurdles champion and perhaps the most popular athlete in the most populous country in the world, walked off the track with an Achilles tendon injury, having taken only a few steps on a false start by another runner.
Gebrselassie was not the only face lost amidst the stunned froth of media at the stadium. Terrence Trammell, silver medalist at the last two Olympics and the most consistent hurdler in the world, started limping after the first hurdle of his preliminary heat, knocked the second hurdle over with his hands and then stepped from Lane 2 into a vacant Lane 1, victim of a left hamstring strain.
A frustrated Trammell went down to all fours on the Olympic track and pounded the red Mondo surface. Then he rose to his feet and walked down Lane 1, quietly dragging a powerless left leg.
When Trammell, 29, stepped over the finish line, he casually waved off a stretcher that stadium staff members had wheeled to the trackside. A headline in the Xinhua News Agency, the official news outlet of the Chinese government, hit it right on: "Hurdles becomes less charismatic without Liu, Trammell."
Of course, the high hurdles was never the coolest kid in school, anyway. They don't conjure the primal fury of the 100 and are more difficult to look at than the longer sprints. The hurdles are just a blur of feet and knees and plastic barriers to the uninitiated, a mystery to those who have no notion of the technical aspects of hurdling and how dramatically different the event is from simply sprinting and jumping.
But at the 2008 Games, the 110 hurdles were going to be the prom king. It would be another showdown in the Liu-Trammell rivalry. Liu took gold to Trammell's silver in Athens and again last summer at the World Championships in Osaka. Add to the mix Dayron Robles, the 21-year-old Cuban world record holder who suddenly added an Usain Boltian aura of how-fast-can-he-possibly-go.
The first part of the dream hurdles final was set up perfectly when Robles won the first preliminary heat in 13.39. He did it with such ease that it looked like he could have carried a laptop with him and caught up on some work as he stepped effortlessly over the barriers.
Trammell has always been the type to get excited for this sort of stage. A week ago, at Beijing Normal University, he said, "If you're going to beat me, you're going to have to go low-12.7 to do it." The world record is 12.87.
When asked whether he was prepared to send China into a depression by beating Liu, Trammell replied: "That's what I hope to do. I hope they can cope."
But it's Trammell who will have to cope for now. His final Olympic image will be of him hobbling past the finish line. He will be 33 when the next Olympics roll around, and the average age of the other top-10 hurdlers in the world this year is 24. But Trammell has not shown signs of slowing down, and he seems already to have a productive coping mechanism. Hours after losing out on a chance at gold, Trammell made a pronouncment: "This definitely answers my question about 2012 in London," he said. "You can guarantee I will be there."