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Liu leaves China in tears as his gold medal defense ends prematurely

We asked the Sports Illustrated writers who covered the Beijing Olympics to leave us with their indelible memory of the Games.

An Olympic moment -- yours, mine, anybody's -- is comprised not of 60 seconds, but of many years. My Olympics begin at the previous Olympics, because that is when the quadrennial arc commences. A heartbreaking loss becomes the motivation to continue; a gold medal becomes something to defend. You watch the time unfold. You track the stories in hopes that they will someday be completed. You mark the date somewhere and you wait.

Liu Xiang won the 110-meter hurdles at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens. It was a palpably epic moment -- the first track and field gold medal by a Chinese man. I can still see the scrum outside the interview room in the basement of the Olympic Stadium, as journalists made the leap to assessing the pressure that would become Liu's everyday companion. A nation's hopes on his shoulders, as it were. Four years to go.

Last May in New York I met with Liu for a story in Sports Illustrated's Olympic preview issue. We didn't hang, but we talked through SI's flawless interpreter (and grad student), Jingwen Wang. Liu was 24 at the time (he turned 25 in July) and he seemed like a tired young guy. But he talked in ways that he seldom talks in China, where he lives in a cocoon. I asked him in English if he might be interested in running on China's 4X100-meter relay.

His eyes widened. "Four-by-one?'' he said in English. And then he began waving his hands and laughing. "Nononononononono.'' He stood on the street outside a New York hotel as I talked to his coach, Sun Haiping, occasionally interjecting answers. It was all very relaxed. I silently hoped he would win at home.

Liu never ran another race. On the morning of Aug. 18, I was in the Birds Nest national stadium when Liu fell to the track after awkwardly clearing two hurdles before his first-round heat against a bunch of guys he could have crushed eight years ago. He folded himself into the blocks for the start and limped forward at the gun, a flast start. The he ripped of his hip sticker and walked down a tunnel, leaving his lane empty.

The stadium fell into a stunned buzz. Chinese workers cried. A nation fell into anguish. Liu disappeared from sunlight into shade. I thought: Four years over. And that's how it ends. Damn