Incredible. During the entirety of our past two years in China, Liu Xiang has been the face of the upcoming Olympic games. He is China's greatest-ever track and field athlete, defending Olympic gold medalist in the 110m hurdles, the man whose smile and whose action-shots soaring over hurdles we have seen in maybe ten thousand TV ads, billboards, subway signs, and every other medium.
He stumbled just now in a heat in which someone else false-started; then he withdrew from the event. As I mentioned a month ago, Liu has probably been under more individual pressure than any other person involved in these Games. It would be as if Michael Phelps were the only American ever to have won a gold medal in swimming -- Liu's position among Chinese male track and field athletes -- and would be racing only once, in the 50-yard freestyle.
Liu has known for four years that a billion-plus people in his country would be watching -- and that, in something less than thirteen seconds, he would be celebrated forever as the man who helped glorify the Olympics and his country, or reviled as a big disappointment. I don't have them on hand at the moment, but there have been many recent quotes to the effect of: "If Liu Xiang fails to win a second gold, on his home soil in front of his countrymen, everything he has achieved so far will be dirt." Etc.
Probably there's something so wrong with his foot or Achilles tendon that he couldn't even try to compete in the re-run of the heat. But it would be natural and human if it were something more too: perhaps better not to try at all than to be captured forever on tape coming up short. It's hard to feel sorry for someone as rich and celebrated as Liu Xiang. But you can sympathize.