LONDON – Liu Xiang’s bid to banish his Beijing Olympics nightmare ended in disaster Tuesday as the Chinese athletics icon crashed out of the 110m hurdles when he smashed into the first barrier.
The 29-year-old former world record holder — winner of the 2004 Olympic crown — had been left distraught four years ago after he was forced to withdraw just moments before his opening race in front of his home fans.
But his return to the Olympic arena on Tuesday lasted only a split second when he ploughed into the first hurdle with his left leading leg and crashed heavily to the floor.
Liu — who has been troubled by back and foot problems in the past month — eventually got up and hopped down the track to be embraced by his fellow competitors.
He was helped off the track by Britain’s Andy Turner and Spain’s Jackson Quinonez and then taken to the medical centre in a wheelchair.
Feng Shu Yong, leader of the Chinese track and field team, said Liu had likely suffered a ruptured achilles tendon.
“We’re waiting for medical confirmation,” Feng said. “What I saw in slow motion on the big screeen was that he couldn’t take off.
“At the moment of taking off, the tendon bears a lot of pressure and at the that moment, the injury occurred and he couldn’t make the momvement.
“He showed the spirit of the Olympics. He got up and finished. It shows that it’s not all about winning but showing the Olympic spirit to the world.”
Fellow competitor Balazs Baji of Hungary had waited for Liu at the finish line, taking the Chinese star’s hand in his and raising the former champion’s arm to the stunned crowd.
“When I was a kid I saw him breaking a world record, winning the Olympic Games in Athens, so he’s a great idol for me. I’m sorry that he fell. It must be really bad for him,” he said.
American Aries Merritt, the leading hurdler this season, said he felt sorry for Liu but didn’t see anything untoward about him physically at the warm-up.
“It was just terrible. For that to happen to one of the best hurdlers of all time is just a tragedy and I hope he’s OK,” said Merritt, whose achievement in running the fastest ever Olympic heat of 13.07sec was overshadowed by Liu’s distress.
“He looked fine before the race, like nothing was wrong with him. He warmed up great. He always has a good warm-up and he was happy and so I don’t think anything was wrong with him going into the race.”
Turner had been racing in Liu’s heat and waited for him to hobble down the track before helping him into the wheelchair.
“I have Achilles problems as well,” said the 31-year-old, who won a bronze medal behind Liu at the world championships in Daegu last year.
“I know what it feels like to be in pain like that. I regard him as probably the best hurdler in history. I have so much respect for him so it was horrible seeing him limp off like that.
“When you medal with people you have a kind of connection and after last year in Daegu we always say hello, try and have a chat in what little English he speaks but he’s a nice guy and I wouldn’t wish that on my worst enemy.”
Liu’s dream of winning gold in front of his home crowd in 2008 ended in one of the great Olympic anti-climaxes as he turned up for his heat but failed to clear a hurdle, clearly hindered by his Achilles tendon injury.
His career has been hampered by injuries ever since he took gold and equalled the then world record at Athens in 2004.
Tuesday’s setback left Chinese fans and commentators in shock, with state television sports commentator Yang Jian in tears as he reported the news to a stunned nation. His sobs were heard live during the CCTV broadcast of Liu’s elimination.
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