By Lin Li
All that we could talk about over lunch today was Liu Xiang's stunning pullout this morning from his first heat for the Beijing Olympic 110m hurdles event over injury in the leg.
Just an hour before, our newsroom colleagues halted the regular Monday meeting temporarily around 11am to follow the live telecast from the Bird's Nest. Perhaps many Chinese across the country were doing the same, that's the affection the nation held for Liu, the defending Olympic Champion, and the first Chinese to have won an athletic Olympic gold medal.
The outcome stunned the stadium into silence, and instigated uproar in my office. Everyone was in disbelief over how everything had ended before it even started. Liu showed up in the track, while warming up for the race, his old injury flared up and agony crossed his face. He took the stand nevertheless, but only managed to limp for a few steps before a second gun shot went off to signal a false start. Liu then left the ring without completing the race.
So ended the nation's wait for years.
High hopes had been pinned on Liu ever since he won the gold at the Athens Games, and tickets for the 110m hurdles final at the Beijing Games on August 21 were the most sought after. Now that with the hope to see Liu against Cuban hurdler Dayron Robles – as some called it the race of the century – dashed, "I am going to source for the event's second-hand ticket, the price will definately drop," said a colleague of mine optimistically.
Debates over Liu's pullout in my office basically divided into two poles: one of sympathy and understanding; the other of rage and criticism.
Those who criticized said that Liu didn't even try. As my colleague Jiao said, "if only he had tried, even if he limped through the race and lost, I would have been proud of him."
That idea was evoked by a widely publicized tale in China of a Tazanian athlete, John Stephen Akhwari, during the 1968 Mexico City Olympics.
Akhwari took part in the marathon, during the race he fell, injuring his knee and dislocating his joint, yet he continued and finished last, more than four hours after the race started. His reasoning was: "My country did not send me to Mexico City to start the race. They sent me to finish."
His story of putting nation before self and perseverance fit the Chinese push for patriotism and sportsmanship in the run-up to the Beijing Games, and was featured in a propaganda music video named SongHero 2008.
Carrying a nation upon his shoulder was what Liu has been doing for the past years. Interestingly, the number Liu sported on his shirt on Monday's heat was 1356, which some explained as he was carrying the hope and pride of 1.3 billion people formed by 56 ethnic groups in China.
Since the Athens Games, he shot to stardom overnight. Crafted media publicity, attention from commercial sponsors, investment from the state and coupled with his own talent and hard work, Liu becomes the biggest star and hero in China. Asked any kids in China who they aspired to be, chances are many would answer "Liu Xiang".
It is perhaps this idea of Liu being made a hero through "public" resources that made some Chinese felt he owed them an explanation; he is viewed by some as a public asset that the state and taxpayers have contributed in molding, thus his "failure" is no longer a personal matter, just like how paparazzi justify that celebrities has no right to privacy as they reap the fruits of publicity.
Even back in late 2004, when the hurdler published a book entitled I am Liu Xing, he had perhaps felt the pressure of public spotlight as he explained the reason for penning the book before he even reached the peak of his career or retired.
"Ever since coming back from Athens, I have received tons of letters and I may not have the time to answer each individually…. And the media has over time shaped me into a perfect figure, but in reality, I am not, I am just a common, simple person, like any of you…" he wrote in the book's epilogue.
Having said that, he was all charged and hopeful when jotting the ending note at home in Shanghai on Nov 8, 2004 – "The Athens Games is only one of the stops in my life; it is not my final destination. I will push ahead, and in the 2008 Beijing Olympic, I will let you all see my victorious smile again."
No audience has foreseen the Monday outcome, though there had been news prior to the heat that Liu was nursing injuries since May. Following the pullout, however, some raised suspicion that the Monday episode had been long planned, and that earlier news was manipulated to cushion the final blow on a nation who had placed high expectations on one of its iconic athletes.
While conspiracy theories are always exciting, we should not lose sight that Liu has already opened a new path for China's track and field event four years ago, and he had outdone himself in numerous international competitions thereafter. But he should not be walking down that path alone--instead of pinning all hopes and pressure on Liu, let us wish him a speedy recovery and cheer for other athletes who are still in the race.