BEIJING — A handsome, media-friendly and very fast athlete, Liu Xiang is a hurdler who bears the hopes and dreams of 1.3 billion people on his shoulders, a man who was simply not supposed to lose.
China was stunned when national hero and 110-meters hurdles Olympic champion Liu Xiang hobbled out of the Games holding his leg, and a country’s dreams of gold in a discipline in which China has only recently emerged, were dashed.
Liu advertises everything from milk to Nike, who make a bespoke pair of spikes for him called the Nike Zoom Aerofly LX, as well as Cadillac and Coca-Cola and is on every hoarding, on the side of every bus and features in countless TV ads.
On blogs run by the state broadcaster CCTV, there was little forgiveness to be found.
Wang Tong, a sports journalist, said : “ Liu Xiang used to be and still is a hero in my mind. But there is the only regret: Before Liu Xiang went out of the Bird Nest with his injuries, why not wave to the audience, or bow to them ?”
“We cannot accept the fact that Liu Xiang quits! Liu Xiang dispels all the passion of Chinese people,” ran one irate web posting.
While generally shocked, the angry reaction on the state broadcaster did not entirely reflect the feeling on the streets of Beijing, where people were terribly disappointed, but ultimately resigned.
It’s not all about gold medals, and Chinese people have really enjoyed the broader sense of the Olympics. China leads the medals table with 39 gold medals, with the United States way behind with 22.
It’s about the kind of gold medals a country wins. Liu was, and remains, someone special. When Liu won the 110-meter hurdles in Athens four years ago, there was genuine disbelief in China – he had overcome a genetic disposition that meant Chinese people were physically incapable of winning in track and field.
As we’ve seen in these Games, Chinese people are good at gymnastics, at table tennis, at badminton, at diving, but people believe their legs are too short to compete in track and field? That was for the Americans, not the Chinese. US sprinter Tyson Gay’s failure to qualify for the Mens 100 meters is no compensation.
Liu, the man who took the Olympic torch from President Hu Jintao in Tiananmen Square in March, who has has held the world record in his sport and was simultaneously World and Olympic Champion, just limped off.
“He is under too much pressure, he was afraid of failure. I know there is another athlete from Cuba who runs also very fast. If Liu was going to lose, he would lose everything. Chinese people put too much attention on him. I wonder if he was injured, why didn’t he quit the competition previously ? Why those doctors still let him compete ? Maybe I am wrong.
It’s a pity,” said Li Mingyue, 46, a grocery owner in Beijing.
Many Chinese felt that Liu’s constant presence on billboards possibly drained his ambition.
“I really thought that Liu Xiang could take less time to engage in advertisement, and spend more time in training. In reality, you are flying 1.3 billion people,” said Ye Kuangzheng.
His success in a traditionally “non-Chinese” sport means he is emblematic of the New China that the Games are supposed to showcase. He shows how this emerging country is keen to participate and compete in every area, not just the sectors to which China has traditionally been confined.
“Many athletes have quit competitions in history. In four years, he will be 29. I think he can still compete in the London Olympics. I like him not because what he can do in the future but because what he did,” said Zhang Jie, 27, an architect.