BEIJING -- Poor Liu Xiang. Poor China. How can you not feel for man and country? China Daily, the national newspaper, described the sprinter's flameout from the 2008 Beijing Olympics as "shattering billions of people's dream." Grown men and women at the National Stadium cried at the sight of Liu hobbling off the track Monday morning, and they didn't even know that Liu then rushed into the runner's call room, dropped to the floor and sobbed for a half-hour with a jacket yanked over his head. The state-run television network, CCTV, broadcast live the personification of a nation in distress: Liu's coach, Sun Haiping, weeping in his hands. A reporter wiped away tears on the air; anchors discussed the national calamity in tones befitting a funeral; CCTV sent viewers off to lunch with a long montage of Liu in pain, Liu in distress, Liu pulling up lame, all of it set to heartbreak violins and an Olympic theme gone terribly wrong.
They all wanted it so bad, that vision of Liu winning the gold medal in the final of the 110-meter hurdles on Thursday night. He was the king of these games, and all of China had been sure, ever since Liu's shocking gold medal run in Athens, that he would crown them all with a triumph at home. Now that was dead. Liu's Achilles tendon had betrayed him, betrayed the nation, and there was no escaping the idea that they had done this to him, to themselves, somehow. Maybe they had coddled and stroked and focused so intently on their prize egg -- such a young and handsome egg, the symbol of our future! -- hatching on schedule in the Bird's Nest that it had become too much to take. Maybe all that homeland love had so smothered Liu that he had no choice but to break down, if only to remain sane.
"I am still very sad for dropping out of the race and disappointing everyone," Liu said a statement to the Chinese people released on his Web site Tuesday afternoon. "As I have won more and more championships and more and more people have paid attention to me and supported me, I have faced more and more pressure and disruptions to my life. I can't have happy get-togethers with my friends like other people my age, and I feel the expectation from the entire country at every moment. I know that yesterday everyone was enthusiastically expecting my appearance and I wanted to cross the finish line like I've done so many times before. But it really was because of my foot. Please believe me that the sadness and pain that I feel is no less than yours."
Poor Liu, poor China: If only they both knew. For man and country, his injury was the best thing that could've happened at these Olympic games.
After four years of life as a walking advertisement, the face of a $40 billion rejigging of a world capital, an overstuffed vessel for cultural hopes, the 25-year-old son of a van driver gets to be a man again. No more must he carry the impossible expectations laid on a superhero; in coming up lame at the most important time, he has revealed himself as a mere hurdler, slave to his fickle body like anyone else. Yes, Liu may compete in London in 2012, but he'll never again enter a meet under so much pressure. "He was carrying the weight of 1.3 billion people," says Jamie Metzl, executive vice-president of The Asia Society. "It's hard to clear a hurdle with all that downward pressure."
But Liu's situation was made unique not only by sheer numbers, but by the tone of the expectation placed upon him. The Olympic host suffered a similar fall four years ago, when Greece's Kostas Kenteris, the 200-meter sprinter who won a surprising Olympic gold medal at the 2000 Sydney games, got booted out of the Athens games after he became involved in a phantom "motorcycle accident" while avoiding a doping test. Kenteris, too, was considered a hometown god whose repeat would cap a historic games, and though his fall was more scandalous, the Greeks took it mostly with a world-weary shrug. They'd seen it all, of course, and were hardly stunned to find that the world had produced yet another dopey and duplicitous fool.
China's reaction to Liu, on the other hand, didn't seem fitting for one of the world's oldest and most sophisticated societies. But when you consider that the country's sports history is still in its infancy, it makes sense that everyone involved acted like, well, a bunch of babies. All along, Liu has been treated by Chinese media, administrators and his handlers more as a storybook figure than an athlete, and the irresistible narrative of him winning gold in Beijing became the movie everyone expected -- no, demanded -- to see. His coach said in June that "an official from the state general administration of sport once told us that if Liu cannot win a gold medal in Beijing, all of his previous achievements will become meaningless."
That is beyond absurd. The fact is, in Athens, Liu accomplished what few men can claim. His breakthrough there showed that the time had come for Chinese athletes to shed their inferiority complex about competing with white and black athletes; he rightly called it "a miracle" and a win "not just for myself, but for my country, all Asia, and the yellow-skinned people." No bureaucrat can ever take that away. The problem is, everyone forgot that while writing the fairy tale, and Liu's lack of races and spotty training in recent months were ignored in the hope that they could somehow make it all come true.
"People are asking, 'Why is he injured? Athletes should know their bodies'," Metzl says of the aftermath of Liu's withdrawal. "China is a country run by engineers and the thought is always that outcomes can be predetermined. That's not [a Western] belief and it's not how the world works. But drive outside Beijing: There's whole cities built out of nothing. Their sense is that if you want a gold medal, you build the right structure and do the training, and you can do it. And the idea that you can predetermine outcome is being proven here: The Chinese made the decision that they were going to win 40 gold medals and they did it. But not all outcomes can be predetermined. With Liu Xiang, the structure didn't work. That's why the Chinese people are having problems digesting his injury."
It's as if, in taking on the task of becoming a sports power, China didn't fully realize that doing so would require the playing of sports. Let's state the obvious here: Games are great because the outcome is never predetermined; because the planned narrative always is in danger of being shredded by any number of variables. Stars get injured, underdogs win, nations you once discounted rise up -- in just seven short years -- to rule the world. It helps if, along the way, someone comes from nowhere to show what is possible. Superheros are fine for children.
But at this writing, China has indeed won a best-ever 45 gold medals, far ahead of the U.S.'s 26. It will surely finish with the most in Beijing. Yet in watching the moist reaction to Liu's pullout, it's clear that the country is still catching up with itself; China doesn't yet realize what it has achieved. Liu's injury is the necessary slap in the face: Welcome, China, to the unpredictable world of big-time sports. You got what you wanted. You're an adult. It's time to start acting like one.