It was clear even as Liu Xiang settled into his starting blocks in the "Bird's Nest" Stadium yesterday that there was going to be no Cathy Freeman moment at these Beijing Olympics.
The man who had been carrying the hopes of the Chinese people, all 1.3 billion of them, all the way from the Athens Games of four years ago to these Olympics on home soil, did not settle very easily. He clutched at his right thigh.
The 25-year-old had already pulled up sharply in the second of his practice runs down the track ahead of heat six of the men’s 110m hurdles. Now we knew why his coach, Sun Haiping, had been making such noises of concern in the Chinese press. Like Paula Radcliffe from the 23 mile mark in the women’s marathon on Sunday, Liu was a lame Olympian.
He tried to follow in the tracks of her tears but was unable to get past the first hurdle, let alone to the finish line, where the Briton had ultimately broken down, emotionally and physically. Liu got barely five metres before he pulled up again. The recall gun had fired, signaling a false start, but the Beijing Games were over for Liu. He limped past the starting line and disappeared down the tunnel entrance.
As he did so, a stunned silence settled on the arena, which was full to the brim of 91,000 expectant souls. Ever since Liu claimed the high hurdles title in Athens four years ago, equaling Colin Jackson's world record of 12.91sec, China had been counting down the days to Thursday 21 August 2008, the night the Shanghai Express was expected to deliver a winning home run in the showpiece Olympic track and field arena – like Cathy Freeman in the women’s 400m in Sydney in 2000, and indeed Fani Halkia in the 400m hurdles in Athens in 2004. Perhaps it was an omen on Sunday when the golden glow from Halkia's success four years ago (when she had raised eyebrows with a sudden improvement of four seconds) was tinged by the news that she had tested positive for the anabolic steroid methyltriendolone.
"I want to apologise to the media because of Liu Xiang's injury," Liu's coach, Sun Haipang, said. He revealed that his charge (who had already been struggling with a long term hamstring problem) suffered an Achilles tendon injury in training on Saturday and it had flared up again in warm up yesterday. "There were three doctors dealing with his injury but no matter what they did he couldn’t stand up properly," Sun added, before the man Liu calls his "second father" broke down in tears.
Feng Shouyong, head coach of the Chinese track and field team, had to continue on Sun’s behalf. “I have just talked to Liu Xiang outside," he said. "He is very depressed. When the doctors were giving him treatment he shuddered due to the great pain. He would not withdraw from a race unless the pain was intolerable." It was a pain being borne by a nation of 1.3bn last night.