IN CHINA, theOlympic Games waited for one man. That one man waited four years for onemoment. For nine days the host nation harvested gold medals, some in events soobscure that Americans might scarcely call them sports. Yet it was all a formof prelude to the one race that would help define China's athleticself-esteem.
This is an article from the Aug. 25, 2008 issue
Liu Xiang won agold medal in the 110-meter hurdles at the 2004 Olympics in Athens—China'sfirst men's gold medal in track and field, the international centerpiece of theGames—in an explosive sprint event traditionally dominated by runners fromWestern nations. From that night forward Liu was elevated to a place in Chinesepopular culture where few athletes in any nation have gone. He is a fixture onbillboards and television, his androgynous face staring out at more than abillion souls, they beseeching him in return to win a gold medal at home. In aMay interview Liu was asked if in his home country he could simply go out andquietly get a coffee without being surrounded by fans. He said, "This isnot possible." For these games he was China's Michael Phelps, LeBron Jamesand Tyson Gay rolled into a single form.
In the end hewould not even race. On Monday morning, while a frenzied Bird's Nest crowdshouted encouragement—Liu Xiang, jia you [add fuel]!—Liu scratched himself fromthe first of four rounds of his specialty because of an injured right heel.After pushing from the blocks during a false start, Liu stopped and grimaced,yanked the adhesive lane numbers from his legs and walked down a darkenedtunnel. The Niao Chao fell into a shocked silence. "When Liu Xiang got tothe warmup area, he was trying to endure; he was putting it out there for allhe was worth," said Liu's coach, Sun Haiping, who wept openly during apress conference after Liu's withdrawal. "He couldn't put any weight on hisheel."
National teamcoach Feng Shuyong said that the hamstring injury that Liu suffered whiletraining in the U.S. for the May 31 Reebok Classic (from which he withdrew) hadhealed, but the heel problems that had followed Liu for seven years hadresurfaced two days before his heat and flared up on Monday. "When heentered the call room," said Feng, "he was telling himself that he hadto go through with the race. He said he would only have made the decision todrop out as a last resort."
Chinese fansbegan leaving the Bird's Nest almost as soon as Liu left the track. "Wewere all looking forward to Liu Xiang winning the gold at the Olympics,"said Zheng Huifang, a woman in her 60s who lives near the stadium. "It isthe biggest letdown of the Olympics, but there is nothing we can do because itwas an injury." Zhu Menghia, 43, a government worker visiting the OlympicGreen on the day of Liu's race, said, "We really supported Liu Xiang. Ithought he was very likely to win the gold. It's a big letdown."
It is alsoOlympic reality, which pays no heed to dreams, whether they are those of anation or a single athlete. "What can you say? It's bad luck," saystwo-time Olympic 10,000-meter gold medalist Haile Gebrselassie of Ethiopia. Inthe preliminary heat just before Liu's, the U.S.'s Terrence Trammell, thesilver medalist in the last two Olympics, cleared just one hurdle beforeveering off the track, out with a left hamstring injury.
TRAMMELL'SCOLLAPSE extended a weak start for the U.S. team, which failed to win a goldmedal in the first three days of competition. However, on Monday night thedrought ended in a most unlikely manner, with Stephanie Brown Trafton's victoryin the women's discus. It was the first gold by a U.S. woman in the event sinceLillian Copeland's in 1932 and was made possible in part by the absence ofworld leader Darya Pishchalnikova of Russia, who was nailed in a doping stingeight days before the Games opened.
Soon after BrownTrafton's win, pole vaulter Jenn Stuczynski (who cleared 15'9") took asilver medal behind the incomparable Yelena Isinbayeva of Russia. The medal wasthe first for Stuczynski, a former college basketball player who had beenvaulting for only a few months when Isinbayeva won the gold in Athens fouryears ago. Isinbayeva spent Monday evening straddling the line betweenshowmanship and arrogance, covering her head and body in a tent of quilts andblankets as other women vaulted, ignoring their work while drawing attention toherself. But in the end she owned the Bird's Nest, breaking her own worldrecord with a vault of 16'7" long after the other events had finished."I love to be alone at the top and have the stadium all to myself,"said Isinbayeva. "It's so cool."
Less than an hourafter Stuczynski secured her silver, Angelo Taylor ran a career-best 47.25 towin the 400-meter hurdles, leading Kerron Clement and Bershawn Jackson acrossthe line in a U.S. sweep, America's fifth alltime in this event but first since1960. It was Taylor's second gold in the event, eight years after he capturedan improbable Olympic title from lane 1 in Sydney. In the interim heexperienced deep troughs: Hip and shin injuries dogged him through 2004, and hewas eliminated in the Athens semifinals. His contract with Nike was not renewedafter those Games. And in January 2006 he pleaded guilty to contributing to thedelinquency of two 15-year-old girls and was sentenced to three years'probation and fined $2,500. (Taylor, now 29, had been charged with molestingone of the girls and was found naked in a car with the other.)
Taylor beganrebuilding his life in the winter of 2006 in Atlanta with Innocent Egbunike, aformer Nigeria Olympian who is now a coach. Taylor got a job as anelectrician's apprentice and worked from 5 a.m. until 2:30 p.m. before going topractice. "I told him from this day on, you become the best example thatyou can," Egbunike said after Taylor's gold. "Many days I would come topractice and he would be asleep in his car after working all day."
A year ago, afterreturning to the championship stage with a win in the 400 meters at U.S.nationals in Indianapolis, Taylor addressed his guilty plea. "I'm notperfect," he said. "I made mistakes. I learned my lesson. I've got tomove on and go forward." He moved on to a place where only Edwin Moses hasgone before, winning 400-hurdles golds eight years apart. (Moses won in 1976and '84, missing the boycotted Moscow Games.)
THE SWEEP did notdim the glow of some memorable earlier moments. On the steaming August eveningin Athens in 2004 when Deena Kastor pushed U.S. women's distance running intoglobal relevance again with a stunning bronze medal finish in the marathon,Shalane Flanagan wept. A member of the '04 U.S. team, Flanagan was waitingoutside the venue with teammate Nicole Teter when Kastor ran into ancientPanathinaiko Stadium in third place, winning the U.S.'s first Olympic or worldchampionship distance medal in 12 years. "We went running in afterDeena," says Flanagan. "We both had these huge tears streaming down ourfaces."
Four yearslater—another Olympics in another city—Flanagan played Kastor's role and ran atactically perfect race to win the bronze medal last Friday in the 10,000meters. It was the U.S.'s first Olympic distance-running medal on the tracksince Lynn Jennings won the 10K bronze in Barcelona in 1992. Flanagan's time of30:22.22 knocked more than 12 seconds off her three-month-old American recordand made her the fifth-fastest non-African-born runner in history. (Theremarkable Tirunesh Dibaba of Ethiopia won the gold medal in 29:54.66, anOlympic record and the second-fastest time in history behind the 29:31.78 ofChina's Wang Junxia in 1993.)
Flanagan's bronzewas the culmination of two years' steady training under John Cook, who begancoaching her after she had surgery in April 2006 to remove an extra bone in herleft foot. Her first American 10,000-meter record (she also owns the 5,000record), set on May 4 at Stanford, validated her fitness, and she won the 10Kat the U.S. trials in Eugene, Ore. (and also qualified in the 5K), eight weekslater.
It all nearlyunraveled in China. Four days before the race Flanagan was struck by a bout offood poisoning at the track team's training camp in Dalian, 300 miles fromBeijing. She spent six hours vomiting and two days fighting diarrhea that wasexacerbated when she tried to run. Team doctors treated her with antibiotics,then a probiotic and an antidiarrheal.
Two days beforethe 10,000 she flew to Beijing with her appetite back. "But even then wewere talking every day about pulling out," says Flanagan's husband, SteveEdwards. On the day before the race Flanagan jogged six miles and underwentblood screening that indicated she was recovered enough to run. Still, Cook wasconcerned. "I was just hoping she would finish," he would say after the10,000.
Flanagan executeda flawless race, pacing herself perfectly. She picked off fading runners forthe final eight laps until surging past Linet Masai of Kenya with 800 meters togo and covering the final two laps in 2:12. "I was persistently patient,and then when I went, I went all out," says Flanagan.
At the finish shewas uncertain (because of lapped runners) whether she had won a medal. Afterreceiving confirmation, Flanagan ran to the stands to grab the U.S. flag thatis delivered to every American medalist.
Nearly an hourearlier Christian Cantwell had also been given a flag, after earning the silvermedal with his final throw in the shot put. In the interview zone he clutchedthe folded flag in a meaty hand, frustrated that he had not thrown farther thanPolish gold medalist Tomasz Majewski's winning 21.51 meters (70'7", morethan three feet behind Cantwell's career best).
"Twenty-onefifty-one, that's so doable," said Cantwell. He was the only U.S. throwerto win a medal in the shot—two-time Olympic silver medalist Adam Nelson fouledon his first three throws and was eliminated, while 2007 world champion ReeseHoffa finished seventh—a disappointing showing when talk of a sweep had beenwidespread. "I didn't do my job; none of the Americans did their job,"said Cantwell. "But on a bad day I'll take the silver."
As well heshould. On a very bad day Liu Xiang took away a nation's dream. Silver wouldhave been just fine.
Get daily trackand field reports from Tim Layden and David Epstein at SI.com/Olympics.