BEIJING — Handsome, media-friendly Liu Xiang is a hurdler who carried the hopes and dreams of 1.3 billion people on his shoulders, a man who was simply not supposed to lose.
When he won gold in the 110-meter hurdles in Athens four years ago there was genuine disbelief that he had overcome a genetic disposition that the Chinese believed made them physically incapable of winning in track and field — short legs.
Track and field was for the Americans, not the Chinese.
Liu, the man who took the Olympic torch from President Hu Jintao in Tiananmen Square in March, who was simultaneously World and Olympic Champion in his sport, proved that wrong.
Consequently, China was stunned when Liu pulled up in a qualifying race on Monday with an Achilles tendon injury, dashing dreams of gold.
On blogs run by state broadcaster CCTV, there was little forgiveness.
“We cannot accept the fact that Liu Xiang quits! Liu Xiang dispels all the passion of Chinese people,” ran one irate web posting.
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’s Nest with his injuries, why not wave to the audience or bow to them?”
While generally shocked, the angry reaction on the state broadcaster did not entirely reflect the feeling on the streets of Beijing, where people were disappointed but resigned.
“Many athletes have quit competitions. In four years, he will be 29. I think he can still compete in the London Olympics. I like him not because of what he can do in the future but because what he did,” said 27-year-old architect Zhang Jie.
Many Chinese felt that Liu’s constant presence on billboards possibly drained his ambition.
Liu advertises everything from milk to Cadillac and Coca-Cola; Nike make a bespoke pair of spikes for him called the Nike Zoom Aerofly LX; and he is on every hoarding, on the side of every bus and in countless TV ads.
“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 one webizen, Ye Kuangzheng.
It’s not all about gold medals — China leads the medals table with 39 golds with the U.S. way behind with 22.
It’s about the kind of gold medals a country wins.