A false start, a hobble and the face of China's athletics walked away from the Bird's Nest, shattering billions of people's dream.
Liu Xiang entered the track to cheers from flag-waving fans around 11:45 am. He took off his track jacket and walked to his lane. It was the last heats of the first round of the men's 110m hurdles.
Liu walked with a slight limp but stretched out his right leg, slipped into position and ran - but in pain - when there was a false start.
Liu Xiang of China warms up before the start of his 110m hurdles heat of the athletics competition in the National Stadium at the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games August 18, 2008. Liu failed to start his 110 metres hurdles first-round heat on Monday. [Agencies]
He then stood up and walked away in silence. The reason: injury in the Achilles tendon. He was too heartbroken to emerge in public again during the day.
There was silence and tears in the National Stadium, filled to a capacity 90,000 spectators.
The shock was all round. Disbelief, choked voices and damp eyes were the order of the moment. People who had gathered to watch the first appearance of their sports icon were numb for words.
Olympic champion Liu Xiang walks away after failing to start his 110 metres hurdles first-round heat of the athletics competition at the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games, August 18, 2008. After one false start Liu stopped before the first hurdle clutching his leg and then walked out of the stadium. [Agencies]
A couple from Qingdao sat alone in the stadium, refusing to leave even an hour after Liu's race had ended. They had small Chinese national flags stuck in their hair and red hearts painted on their faces. "I can't believe it," said the woman, Cao Li. "I hope he would return soon." Volunteers ultimately persuaded the couple to leave later.
But there was hope too, especially in Vice-President Xi Jinping's telegram to the General Administration of Sport to sympathize for Liu's pullout. State leaders are worried over his injury but hope he will recover soon, Xi said, encouraging Liu and his coach Sun Haiping not to lose heart.
Sun Haiping (R), coach of China's Liu Xiang, cries during a news conference with China athletics team's head coach Feng Shuyong at the National Stadium during the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games August 18, 2008. [Agencies]
"We hope he will take proper rest and focus on his recovery. We hope that after he recovers, he will continue to train hard and struggle harder for national glory."
Liu said he would cooperate with doctors and try to return to the tracks as soon as possible.
Why is Liu Xiang so important? He is the first Chinese, indeed the first Asian man, to win a gold in an Olympic track event. He proved his Athens win was no flash in the pan by bettering the world record later. And he had the chance to defend his title at home.
The ace hurdler outlined his plan for the next four years after winning the gold in 2004. His was a plan with its route clearly mapped out. A gold in the 110m hurdles final at the Bird's Nest on Thursday night was his goal - and that of China's 1.3 billion people.
A spectator reacts after China's Liu Xiang failed to compete in the men's first round 110m hurdles heat 6 at the "Bird's Nest" National Stadium during the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games on August 18, 2008. [Agencies]
He may return to the London Olympics in 2012. He may regain the world record. Or, he could win the world title next year. But neither he nor anyone else can make up for Monday's loss.
Feng Shuyong, head coach of China's athletics team, however, said at a press conference: "Liu has a strong will (he can) fight till the last minute if his injury hadn't been so serious, he would never have withdrawn from the race."
Liu's coach Sun Haiping, who broke down at the press conference, explained that the hurdler suffered an injury in the Achilles' tendon more than six years ago but it worsened during training on Saturday.
"Liu's heel bone is different from others and so his Achilles' tendon is more vulnerable, but we had taken care of the pain properly before. It didn't hurt him till Saturday," Sun said.
"Liu insisted on running at the Beijing Games. Before the warming up for the race, three doctors tried their best to ease the pain but it didn't subside. Even then Liu decided to run, risking his career ."
Feng, who said he was the "best witness of the painful road Liu had undertaken", praised the hurdler for his strong mind and positive spirit. "Liu was in very good form before Saturday."
His strongest rival and current world record holder, Cuba's Dayron Robles, regretted the loss of his arch rival in the competition.
"I'm sorry for him," Robles told China Daily, "because he is a big athlete, and a big rival for everybody. He is a good man." Robles, who broke Liu's world record in June, cruised into the second round of the heats by finishing first earlier in the day.
Officials of the sports governing body, the International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF) have expressed shock too.
"It's a huge shock. He deserves great support from all the others at this moment," Anna Legnani, IAAF deputy communications director, said.
Editor: canton fair