A greater catastrophe for Chinese fans was hardly imaginable.
Liu Xiang, the golden boy of Chinese athletics who carried the hopes of a nation for a track and field gold medal, pulled out of his 110m hurdles heat this morning with an inflamed Achilles tendon.
Four years of anticipation, four years of glorification, four years of intense expectation, they all evaporated after only four paces. Liu pulled up before the first hurdle, gripping his leg, and hobbled out of the stadium in tears.
Liu has no counterpart in America. In the Chinese sports Pantheon he sits at Yao Ming’s right hand, and his face – with an eager smile plastered over advertising billboards the length and breadth of the country – is just as well known.
He was the first Chinese man ever to win a track-and-field gold, at Athens four years ago. Ever since then the Chinese media has been hyping the prospect that he would successfully defend his Olympic title on home ground this month.
He has been made into a superhero for more than a billion people, and his failure to do more than get out of the starting blocks has stunned a nation that was looking to him to cap an already wildly successful Games for China.
As soon as he disappeared down the Bird’s nest tunnel, the Chinese internet exploded with comments. And not all of them were sympathetic.
An instant poll on Tianya, one of the most popular web portals, found 33 percent who were not only disappointed but accused Liu of “trying to find an excuse because he was scared of losing.”
That was not far short of the 40 percent who took the kinder view that he was right not to force himself to run if he was injured.
“If Liu Xiang did not compete it was only because the pain was intolerable,” the head coach of China’s athletics team, Feng Shuyong, told reporters after Liu’s let-down.
Mr. Feng had Liu’s longtime coach, Sun Haiping, next to him at the press conference, but he took almost all the questions. Mr. Sun was in tears most of the time, his chest heaving with sobs, and he simply could not talk.
After such a massive build-up, stoked by both the Chinese state and by commercial sponsors, Liu’s precipitate and humiliating departure will undoubtedly spark a good deal of debate at home and abroad about whether he simply caved under unbearable pressure.
Liu himself will doubtless have something to say about that himself. And he will have to muster his courage to face the Chinese public.