They watched, anguished, and they cried and commiserated — on social media, on the streets of the Chinese capital and, in the case of one anchor, even on state television.
Many Chinese following the Olympics at home called hurdler Liu Xiang their hero after the former world-record holder and 2004 Olympic champion crashed into the first hurdle during his first heat of the 110-meter hurdles yesterday.
But, for a country that often equates its athletic heroes with a stouthearted national pride, Liu's quick falter in London was a blow that hit home.
"I have to admit, I cried at that moment," microblogger Little Actor Zhou Xuanqi wrote. "I wish he could recover soon."
On China's Central Television, commentator Yang Jian cried out when Liu fell during the live broadcast. "He is ending the London Games in the cruelest way you can imagine," said Yang, who began to choke up.
"Liu Xiang is a warrior," Yang said.
Liu came to London under an injury cloud, and his Chinese fans cheered with more caution about getting their hopes too high, especially after the massive disappointment four years ago when hometown fans at the Beijing Olympics watched in horror as Liu' preliminary heat lasted just two strides before he was forced to stop with right foot and hamstring injuries.
A top Communist Party official phoned Liu in London to show the country's support for him, the official Xinhua news Agency reported today.
It said Liu Yandong, a member of the party's Politburo, "expressed sympathy and concern ... saying that his spirit, will and attitude has deeply moved and highly inspired the whole nation."
About half a dozen newspapers ran front-page photos today of Liu Xiang kissing the last hurdle before he limped off the track. One ran a headline saying "Thank You."
His fall shocked and saddened supporters, who were posting crying emoticon faces on the microblogging site Sina Weibo, where the topic was trending.
There was an outpouring of support and sympathy, though some also questioned whether Liu was faking the fall to avoid the embarrassment of competing in the final but losing the gold. Some were indignant that Liu did not live up to the national honor bestowed to him and called for boycotting products he had endorsed.
That's not how Huang Wanqing saw him. The company clerk in Beijing said the visual of Liu hopping off of the track was a potent one.
"I think everyone is feeling sorry for him," Huang said. "We all think that he's already a great guy and he has done what he should."
An online editorial by Sina Sports said Liu had to face criticisms from his fellow country people who had called him a coward but that injuries are common for professional athletes.
"He lost the race, but he is a winner in life," the editorial said. "He has succeeded by standing on the race track while enduring the pain."
After a temporary retreat, Liu hopped the entire stretch to the finish on his left foot. He made a small detour to a hurdle, which he gave a kiss.
The stumble followed his withdrawal from the 2008 Beijing Games, when he sorely disappointed a home crowd that had expected him to repeat the glorious moment in Athens when Liu became the first Chinese man to win an Olympic gold in athletics.
Xinhua ran an editorial by author Yang Ming saying that Liu should not be worshipped as a god. He wrote that Liu went to London to repay his debt from Beijing. "He must prove he was not a quitter but to fight on with the unprecedented amount of pressure," Yang wrote.
In Beijing, residents showed support.
"I think everyone is feeling sorry for him," said Huang Wanqing, a 24-year-old company clerk. "When we saw him jumping with one leg out the field. We all think that he's already a great guy and he has done what he should."
Guan Yi, a 27-year-old social worker, said the strain was understandable. "I think he was suffering too much pressure. I just hope he can recover soon," Guan said. "I know how tough it is to be an athlete."