Chinese sports fans were left reeling on Tuesday after former Olympic champion Liu Xiang crashed out of the 110 meters hurdles heats at the London Games, a haunting echo of his injury-induced withdrawal in Beijing four years ago.
The 2004 Olympic champion and former world record holder hit the first hurdle with his lead leg and tumbled to the ground before being helped from the track with his dream of regaining the title shattered.
His parents cried in their hotel room in suburban London. “He could not make it because his injury was too serious,” said his mother, Ji Fenhua. “It was really difficult for him to even make it to the starting line.”
Some of the commentators on Chinese state television were unable to control their tears.
Chinese quickly took to the Twitter-like microblogging service Sina Weibo to lament Liu's failure, with around 20m mentions of a "Liu crashed" hashtag within half an hour of his tumble. Some dubbed him "Liu Shuai Shuai" ("Liu Fell Fell") and spoke harshly of his failure.
Celebrites rushing to Liu Xiang's defense
Singer Faye Wong (@veggieg): It's all right, Liu Xiang! There are still many more hurdles to clear in your life. Cheer up!
Actress Zhang Ziyi (@稀土部队）: Liu Xiang stood up and hopped to the finish line on one leg. I guess the 110m track in London is the longest in his career.
Swimming gold medalist Sun Yang (@孙杨）: Liu Xiang left the stadium in a wheelchair. Athletes like him deserve our respect. I couldn't help crying seeing that. He must have endured a lot in the past 4 years. I hope people don't give undue importance to gold medals. He may have a broken Achilles tendon. Come on, brother Xiang!
Actor Tong Dawei （@佟大为）: Liu Xiang owes nobody an apology. Just remember the brilliant records he once created.
Grassroot microbloggers' voices
"My heart is broken. I had been awaiting this race with such expectation."
"That's it for his career."
One cynical microblogger wrote: "Liu is the best actor in the world."
"Anyway, you were already the champion when you made it to the field."
"Maybe there is a low point for everyone.”
“There are still a number of hurdles to leap for Liu Xiang. Let's encourage him. Come on!"
"You're still a hero to me, and we are still very proud of you."
"Let's not blame Liu Xiang, it's his team and the sports ministry."
Xinhua news agency: Chinese 110 meters hurdler Liu Xiang showed that you do no need to win a medal to be an Olympic hero this Tuesday.
China Daily: Liu didn't going out in shame. He hopped down the track to finish the race last and then went out to cheers from the packed crowd. Cheers for his amazing achievement, but also cheers for his dogged persistence to remain a champion. Here, we salute that, and everything else China has achieved so far as number one at the London Olympics.
Reuters: 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".
The Guardian: "Liu fell to the ground. So did the hearts of 1.3 billion people."
The Washington Post: It left one of the signature races of the games without one of its main characters — a challenge by Liu of defending champion Dayron Robles and U.S.-hurdler Aries Merritt which was to be one of the highlights of the Olympics.
The New York Times: For an athlete as finely tuned and experienced as Liu, it was too blatant a mistake to have been purely a miscalculation.
ESPN: He was -- and, indeed, still is -- China's only track and field superstar, a man whose legs were insured for more than $10 million. But he's been more than that, too: One of China's most recognizable faces, endorsing shoes and cars and all manner of other products. But in front of a packed Bird's Nest, he never even made it to the first hurdle.
Fellow competitors speak out:
"I respect him. I like him," said Balazs Baji of Hungary, fifth in their heat. "It must be really bad for him. I'm really sorry. I didn't say anything. I just couldn't say anything."
Other competitors went over to offer handshakes of condolences, before Britain's Andrew Turner and Spain's Jackson Quinonez helped Liu into a waiting wheelchair so he could be taken away from the track.
"I wouldn't wish that on my worst enemy," said Turner, who won their heat in 13.42 seconds. "I rate him as one of the best hurdlers we've had in the world ever. I don't like to see that kind of thing."
"It's just a tragedy for that to happen to one of the best hurdlers of all time," said the American. "I do not think he is injured before the competition. He warmed up great. Everything looked fine. I just think he had a technical mistake. He got too close to the hurdle. He clipped it and it is really hard to recover after something like that."
Jamaican star sprinter Usain Bolt also lauded Liu Xiang a "true champion" despite his heartbreaking elimination from Games.
"It must be hard for that to happen for the second time in a row. He's a great athlete," said Bolt, who successfully retained his Olympic crown in men's 100m dash by clocking 9.63 seconds Sunday night.