Liu’s Achilles heel all too literal
For a couple of months in the run-up to the London Olympics, China dared to dream that Liu Xiang might just be able to banish the haunting memories of Beijing and reclaim the high hurdles crown he lost four years ago.
Seven steps into heat six of the first round of the 110 metres hurdles at the Olympic Stadium on Tuesday, however, and that dream was shattered by the weakness of the same Achilles tendon that wrecked his bid for gold on home soil.
The 29-year-old Shanghainese clattered into the first hurdle before tumbling onto the track after suffering what the Chinese team suspect was a rupture.
The implications were not as great in London as they had been in Beijing, where Liu had been expected to become the face of China’s first hosting of the Olympics by winning gold in front of 90 000 of his compatriots.
But his early departure does deprive the Games of one of the great high hurdlers and the world’s most populous nation of a genuine gold medal contender on the track.
“It was just terrible,” said American Aries Merritt, who is now favourite to win Wednesday’s final. “That it happens to one of the best hurdlers of all time is just a tragedy.”
Being China’s great athletics hope is a weight Liu has carried on his narrow shoulders for eight years since he became Asia’s first male champion on the Olympic track in Athens, proving, in his own words, that “the yellow man can sprint”.
At his best, Liu is a supreme technician, his ability to clear the hurdles smoothly making up for the lack of raw sprinting power possessed by the best American hurdlers.
Leaping from the blocks, he would whip across the 10 barriers in a whirl of legs and arms before scurrying to the line with a surprisingly quick finish.
The Achilles injury he suffered before Beijing never went away, though, and limited Liu’s ability to train with full intensity, as his coach and mentor Sun Haiping has constantly reminded the expectant Chinese public since his Beijing exit.
An encouraging 2011 season, however, culminated in his reaching the final at the world championships, where he probably would have won gold had Beijing Olympic champion Dayron Robles not hindered him.
Liu took home a silver medal and embarked on preparations for his third Olympics by perfecting his reduced run to the first hurdle in seven rather than eight steps.
Then, on rainy night in his hometown of Shanghai in May, a flawless run of 12,97 seconds — his fastest since he won the world title in 2007 — had China starting to believe again.
Better was to come. He ran 12,87 seconds in Oregon in June with only a tailwind slightly over the allowed strength denying him a share of the world record held by Robles.
“It’s not as easy as people think,” China’s athletics team leader Feng Shuyong said on Tuesday.
“We saw him running really well at some meetings this year, but people don’t realise how much work and effort behind the scenes went in to overcoming the difficulties.
“Not everyone could deal with these difficulties and the pressures he has been under.”
Born in Shanghai in 1983, Liu was prophetically named Xiang, which means ‘fly’.
With his parents both working, Liu was brought up largely by his grandmother who fattened up the skinny child with braised pork in brown sauce.
Under a project where youngsters had their bones measured and were allocated sports depending on their anticipated growth, Liu was chosen at the age of seven as a future high jumper.
When later tests predicted he would not grow tall enough, his career might have been over had Sun not turned up and persuaded his parents to let the teenager train in the high hurdles.
Ultimately the sport brought him the sort of fame and fortune in China matched by few other figures barring basketball player Yao Ming.
It also ensured huge crowds of fans at Liu’s every public appearance and the weight of expectation that he could win glory for his country on the track.
Whether he decides that the long, hard road back to fitness is worth starting all over again will probably not be known for a while.
Given the fortitude he has shown over the last four years, however, it would be rash to presume Liu will retire.
“It is hard to say. Lots of athletes get injured and come back,” Feng added. “It depends on many factors.
“It is such a pity but his spirit is there. It is the true Olympic spirit, that winning is not so important, participation is what matters.”