Amid injury, an opportunity to exhibit Olympic traits

Chinese hurdler Liu Xiang withdrew from competition today in a huge blow to the host nation. But many athletes say such disappointments spur dedication – and successful comebacks.

Kim Kyung-Hoon/Reuters
Heartbroken: Sun Haiping, who coaches Chinese hurdler Liu Xiang, cried Monday during a news conference after Liu hobbled off the track before his first-round heat of his event.
Ruben Sprich/Reuters
Out: Liu Xiang, China's famed hurdler, grimaced in pain during his warmup for the 110m hurdles heat Monday. He quit the race, to many Chinese fans' great disappointment.

Sada Jacobson might have some small clue into how Chinese hurdler Liu Xiang felt when he broke from the start blocks, hopped gingerly on an injured foot, then left the track without clearing even the first hurdle of his Olympics.

Last year, the American fencer was injured for the first time in her career.

Everyday “you are training your body to do something,” the American silver medalist said at a pre-Games press event. “When it can’t do that, it’s almost like your body is betraying you.”

“I had never realized how psychologically tough that would be,” she added.

Injuries and poor form have nagged Liu all year, yet the shock of his withdrawal from the men’s 110 meter hurdles today flowed from the Bird’s Nest in an audible silence. This was to be Liu’s Olympics as much as China’s. He was the face of Games here, seemingly on every billboard and ice-cream wrapper.

Beyond China’s disappointment, however, is a parable of the modern elite athlete. In an era of supplements and pioneering surgeries, athletes have come to see their bodies as finely tuned Porsches that require constant pampering and painstaking maintenance to push the limits of human performance.

Yet one athlete who recovered from a major injury to make these Games suggests that amid bodily breakdown lies an opportunity to exhibit the most Olympic of traits – dedication and an unyielding hope.

“You have to see it as a blessing in disguise,” says Ben Wildman-Tobriner, an American swimmer who overcame a serious chest injury to win gold in the 4 x 100 freestyle and finish fifth in a deep 50 meter freestyle field.

The possibility of Liu coming back to full fitness might seem small solace for some in China. China’s marvelous performance at these Games will help soothe the disappointment of his withdrawal. But he – like basketball player Yao Ming – was an image of an athlete who showed China could beat the best the world had to offer even the most competitive events.

In Athens, he won gold in the 110-meter hurdles, and until earlier this season, he owned the world-record time in the event. Yet this season he never neared his best, dropping out of several events with injuries and losing his world record to Cuban Dayron Robles, now the gold-medal favorite here.

The expectation placed upon Liu appeared to weigh heavy. Liu’s coach, Sun Haiping, says Liu is actually carrying two long-term injuries, one to his heel and one to his thigh. The heel injury is the one that prevented him from racing today, Sun said at a press conference.

Wildman-Tobriner has known similar frustration. In March 2007, he was the world champion in the 50-meter freestyle. Nine months later, he tore a chest muscle, putting his hopes for Beijing in doubt.

“The night after it happened, I was sitting on the couch and thought, ‘This stinks,’ ” he said at a pre-Olympic media summit in Chicago.

But the first step toward overcoming his injury was overcoming his sense of pity. “I felt sorry for myself for about 10 minutes, and since then it’s been full steam ahead.”

In the end, he made the Beijing team, and he now thinks he’s a more complete swimmer. “Having that injury allowed me to work on my kick,” he said.

Such were the expectations for Liu in Beijing, however, that the head of the Chinese track-and-field team went to great lengths to dispel any sense that Liu had failed the country.

“For the past four years, Liu Xiang has been an athlete with great stability who never drops out of competition easily,” said Feng Shouyang. “Obviously, when he went into the stadium, he went in with the greatest and the strongest will.”

In the hours immediately after the injury, there was some criticism of Liu’s effort on Chinese websites. He was stoic when he turned and walked from the track. By contrast, other Chinese athletes have openly wept merely for winning silver, not gold.

Hopefully, Feng finished: “I think the Chinese people will understand the situation and will encourage him to come back to the track.”

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