Handsome, charming, and very fast, the champion hurdler Liu Xiang bore the dreams of 1.3 billion people on his shoulders. He was a man who was not allowed to lose. But in the Bird's Nest stadium yesterday, incredibly, he lost before he got to the first hurdle.
After a false start in his first-round heat, the defending Olympic 110m hurdles champion clutched his leg and walked off the track. His personal coach of 12 years burst into tears, as did Chinese journalists and legions of the 90,000 fans present.
"Liu was very, very upset," said the athletics head coach, Feng Shuyong. Liu's problem, it appears, was an Achilles tendon injury that aggravated an old hamstring problem. "He would not withdraw unless the pain was intolerable and there was no other way out."
The pain of his shock exit was felt around the country. The hurdler had been raised as an emblem of the New China that the Beijing Games were supposed to showcase – an emerging country competing in every area.
When Liu won the 110-metre hurdles in Athens four years ago – becoming his country's first male Olympic track champion – there was genuine disbelief back home. On home turf in Beijing, he carried the nation's expectation of a repeat performance. But it was not to be, and yesterday the country shared his frustration.
On the blogs of the state broadcaster, CCTV, there was little forgiveness. "We cannot accept that Liu Xiang quits! Liu Xiang dispels the passion of Chinese people," read one web posting.
Many Chinese felt Liu's constant presence on advertising hoardings – selling everything from milk to Nike, from Coca-Cola to Cadillacs – could have weakened his ambition. "I really thought that Liu Xiang could take less time to engage in advertisement, and spend more time in training," said Ye Kuangzheng. Some of Liu's countrymen were more sympathetic, acknowledging the tremendous stress the athlete had been experiencing.
"The national pressure crushed him. After the Athens Olympics, Chinese people concentrated on him very much. We all view him as a national treasure. But he is just a human being," said Chen Baotian, 38, a statistics teacher. "I think the pressure from 1.3 billion Chinese people is too much for a man. Just let him have a good rest."