Praise and compassion in China for hurdler Liu Xiang overwhelmed criticism after one of the faces of the Beijing Games four years ago suffered his second straight disaster on the Olympic track.
Liu, 29, crashed at the first barrier in the 110-meter hurdles heats at the London games yesterday before being helped off by fellow competitors. At Beijing’s Bird’s Nest stadium in 2008, he pulled up with an Achilles injury during the warmup for his opening heat and withdrew.
“Yes, Liu Xiang failed,” the Beijing Morning Post said today in a commentary. At the same time, it can’t be forgotten that Liu also “corrected” the idea that Asians can’t excel at track and field. “It’s him that lifted the Chinese men’s 110 meter hurdles to new heights,” according to the article.
Liu, who won the gold medal at the 2004 Olympics in Athens, hopped alongside the track on one leg after crashing out of yesterday’s race. He stopped to kiss the last hurdle before being helped into a wheelchair.
While there is some resentment in China at another failure, “there’s more salutation, understanding and compassion,” the Beijing News said in an editorial about Liu.
“What Liu Xiang did reflected the true Olympic spirit,” Feng Shuyong, head coach of China’s track and field team, told the official Xinhua News Agency. “To win is not so important, participation is what matters.”
Liu probably ruptured his Achilles while taking off from the starting blocks, Xinhua cited Feng as saying. Intensive training in the games lead up may have caused a recurrence of the injury he suffered four years ago, Feng added.
The reaction to Liu’s injury contrasted with the criticism prompted by Chinese badminton players Yu Yang and Wang Xiaoli, who were thrown out of the London Olympics for deliberately playing poorly. Yu and Wang were ordered to issue public apologies and Xinhua cited the Chinese delegation as saying their attempt to manipulate future match ups by losing “violated” the Olympic spirit.
Aries Merritt of the U.S. qualified quickest for today’s 110-meter hurdles semifinals in a time of 13.07 seconds, the fastest opening 110-meter hurdles heat in Olympics history. The final is also scheduled for today.
Jamaica’s Usain Bolt, who returned to the track yesterday in the 200-meter heats after defending his 100-meter title three days ago, commiserated with Liu, who finished second at the 2011 World Championships and trailed only Merritt in the top times this year.
“It must be hard for that to happen for the second time in a row,” Bolt, 25, said to reporters about Liu after winning his heat. “He’s a true champion. It’s so sad for him.”
Liu’s face was one of the most widely seen in the buildup to the Beijing games, where concerns over his fitness dominated the news. He had surgery in the U.S. and returned to the sport in 2010 after changing his technique out of the blocks. He was hampered by back and foot injuries in the past month, and had his right Achilles taped up yesterday before starting the race.
“It’s a shame it happened to Liu,” said Merritt. “I don’t think anything was wrong before the race. He looked OK. You make a mistake, you’re out of the game.”
To be sure, some Chinese have been speculating on a more sinister explanation for the latest injury. Possible reasons for his tumble posted on Twitter-like microblogging services in China have ranged from the hurdler’s fear of failure to commercial manipulation and conspiracy.
Those theories are unjustified, according to a commentary in the Tianjin Daily.
“Does Liu Xiang really need this gold medal to prove his greatness? Why would he need to fake an injury?” the Tianjin Daily’s commentary said. “The most important thing in life is not triumph, but the fight. From that point, Liu Xiang is successful, and he remains a man the Chinese are proud of and a legend that foreigners respect.”
— With assistance by Dingmin Zhang