Few people will ever experience the sort of pressure that China’s Liu Xiang faces every time he goes out to race the men’s 110-meter hurdles.
The 2004 Athens gold medalist is a giant in China. He is the face of global giants Coca Cola and Nike. A nation hangs on his every performance. He achieved the triple crown of world champion, world-record holder and Olympic champion.
When Liu won, he claimed it as a victory over the Chinese physiology, which was widely believed unsuitable for track and field, according to China.org.cn.
In 2008, expectations were high that Liu would deliver Olympic track and field gold at his home Games in Beijing.
It was not to be.
Rumours had been rife in the lead-up to the heats of the hurdles that all was not well with Liu, but it was not until he started his preparations for his heat that it became apparent just what that meant.
Liu’s demeanour let everyone know that he wasn’t comfortable. His facial contortions, grimacing and exaggerated rubbing of his wounded leg set the scene for what was to follow.
He carried a limp worthy of Saturday matinee pirate and gave every impression of a man who wanted to be somewhere else.
A false start saw Liu hobbling before the first hurdle, and the effort of stopping apparently was the final straw. He ripped off his numbers and disappeared down the tunnel to the stunned disbelief of 80,000 devoted Chinese fans.
The world will never know how bad the injury was. Cynics would say that it is the perfect cover for a man who was out of form and allowed him and the government to save face under the harsh spotlight of international scrutiny.
After a year away from the sport, Liu started his comeback but never regained his previous form.
The 2012 London Games offered Liu the opportunity to exorcise his demons, to show the world that Beijing was an aberration and that he is a true champion.
Again, it was not to be.
As Jim Caple of ESPN.com reports, Liu again didn’t make the end of his qualification race. This time he hit the first hurdle and appeared to injure his Achilles tendon.
It’s hard to see him coming back after this.
To add insult to injury (literally), Liu hopped away down the tunnel in obvious pain, only to be turned around by a heartless official who told him he had to go to the tunnel at the other end of the track.
In what has become an all too familiar sight, no assistance was offered to the injured athlete, and he was forced to hop the entire length of the track before going down the correct tunnel to get assistance.
It was no way to end a career. Champions deserve better.