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Chinese lament Liu Xiang’s departure from Olympics - 8/18/2008
Hurdler Liu Xiang’s withdrawal from the Olympics hit China on an emotional level, underscoring the personal connection many Chinese feel to an athlete who embodied their nation’s desire for international recognition and respect.
Many fans at the packed Bird’s Nest stadium shed tears of shock and disappointment, before filing out in silence after Liu, grimacing in pain from a leg injury, hobbled off the track in Monday’s 110-meter hurdles heat. Only seconds earlier, the 90,000-strong crowd had teetered on the verge of pandemonium, screaming Liu’s name and madly waving Chinese flags.
“I felt so sad, I just burst into tears,” said Wu Yue, a Beijing newspaper editor, who long after Liu left the track sat staring up at the big screen in the nearly deserted stadium, cupping her hands to her mouth, her face red and puffy. “Liu Xiang’s withdrawal is the biggest loss to this Beijing Olympic Games.”
China had already exceeded its medal take at the last Olympics, or that both its men’s and women’s gymnastics teams had grabbed the team competitions. Liu’s presence was always going to be special.
The Shanghai native burst into the public consciousness at the age of 21 with his gold medal at the 2004 Athens Olympics, China’s first in a sprint event. In 2006 he set the world record. His talismanic competition presence and casual charisma made him a star on the level of Houston Rockets center Yao Ming. Lucrative endorsement deals from Nike, Visa, and Coca-Cola soon followed.
To many Chinese, Liu epitomized their nation’s overweening desire for international acceptance, to excel in world competition and have their hard work recognized after so many decades of grinding poverty, foreign domination and self-imposed international isolation. National pride, sometimes tinged with racial overtones, always factors into discussions about Liu, something that can cut both ways in a country that loves a winner but takes its sporting losses hard.
“I was astonished. It was out of my expectations,” said school security guard Wang Yanming, who watched the heat at home. “I feel sad because this is the Olympics that is being held right here in Beijing.”
Beijing university lecturer Yan Li, who came to the stadium with six friends all wearing costume wings, said they wept at Liu’s departure, but that the pain of the blow soon receded.
“We still have confidence in him because he was gold medalist at the last Olympic games and all Chinese people adore him,” Yan said.
State broadcaster CCTV carried Liu’s withdrawal live along with a tearful news conference with Liu’s longtime coach. Word spread fast and within minutes, Internet chat rooms and Web sites began filling up with comments, most of them supportive. His own Web site published a brief factual report within minutes of his withdrawal, quickly attracting almost 1,000 postings.
While Liu isn’t expected to race in the coming season, it wasn’t clear whether his withdrawal would affect his appeal as an endorsee.
Christina Lau, spokeswoman for Coca Cola (China) Beverages Ltd., said the company would continue to count on Liu Xiang “as an ambassador for our company and our brand because his achievements both on and off the field will continue to inspire fans and consumers throughout China.”
“We began supporting Liu Xiang before his Athens triumph and we will continue supporting him through his recovery,” Lau said. She declined to discuss possible future marketing plans and whether Liu’s injury might affect his role in them.
As Liu walked off the track, CCTV showed Chinese fans in the stadium looking up at the big screen in confusion. One man with a small Chinese flag painted on his right cheek and a small plastic “Go China, Go Olympics!” flag stared, mouth agape. The official Xinhua News Agency flashed Liu’s withdrawal on its wire.
Liu’s expected appearance in Saturday’s final had been hugely anticipated, and for some in the crowd, his withdrawal also marked the waning of their interest in the Olympics.
“We would have stayed longer if Liu Xiang had gone on to the final,” said He Min, who traveled with her son to Beijing from the eastern province of Anhui and paid 2,000 yuan—10 times the face value—for tickets to a scalper.
“Now,” He said, “we’ll just go back home and watch it on TV.”

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