Four years ago in Beijing, Liu Xiang 刘翔 left the Bird’s Nest in pain, not even clearing the first hurdle of his qualifying heat. Four years later in London, Liu’s dreams of an Olympic comeback crumbled yet again.
Following his shock exit in 2008, Liu has been beset by recurring injury. He could not seem to find the old form that brought him an historic Olympic gold, a World Championship title, and a then-12.88s world record in the 110m Hurdles. The Chinese hurdler almost won another world title in Daegu last year, if not for an accidental clash with rival Dayron Robles.
Read: “London Olympics Preview – The Sprint Hurdles”
In the run-up to the London Games, the 29-year old had drawn level with Robles’ 12.87s world record, albeit with slight wind assistance. Liu had gone beyond 13.00s twice, stamping his class on the world’s best sprint hurdlers. The stage was set for Liu’s great Olympic comeback in the British Isles. But fate, it seemed, had other plans.
Through the choppy images of my live streaming link, I saw the unfortunate events transpire frame by frame. When the starting gun fired, the rest of the field powered on to the finish line. At the left side of the screen, I saw a lone figure lying on the track clutching his right leg.
The commentators’ gasps of disappointment and regret confirmed my worst fears: Liu’s Olympic campaign had come to an abrupt end.
Read/View: “Hurdler Liu Xiang turns fall into heroism”
Liu headed out to an exit near the starting line, but a venue official apparently led him back to the race area. The 2004 Athens Olympic champion hobbled on the straightaway. Limping on his one good leg, Liu veered towards his original lane and gave the final hurdle a kiss. One of his competitors, the Hungarian hurdler Balazs Baji raised Liu’s arm, proclaiming to the entire stadium the latter’s symbolic victory.
In a touching display of camaraderie, hometown boy Andy Turner and the Spaniard Jackson Quinonez helped the ailing Liu to a waiting wheelchair.
The sprint hurdles is an unforgiving event. The event demands a certain degree of flat out speed to sprint nimbly in between the barriers, and a high level of technical proficiency to skim efficiently over the 1.067-meter high hurdles. The margin for error is small; a single mistake in clearing could spell a premature end to the race.
A Xinhua article revealed that Liu was suffering from an injury. “In Germany, Liu felt pain in the foot where his old injury was,” said Sun Haiping, Liu’s long-time coach.
Ever since Liu Xiang emphatically won the 2002 Asian Games gold, I’ve considered him a role model. Throughout my track career, I looked up to the guy. I can still remember that fateful night back in 2004, when the 21-year old Liu stormed to the finish line in first place, matching Colin Jackson’s world record. One of my cherished possessions is an autographed copy of his autobiography, which I brought to every single major race as a talisman.
My initial reaction, of course, was one of disappointment and disbelief. Seeing him claw his way back to the top, only to succumb once again to injury tore my heart out. But when I saw Liu bravely limping to finish the race – and the subsequent reaction of the spectators and his competitors – a poignant realization dawned on me.
He has won every, single major title: the World Indoors, the World Championships, and the Olympics. Perhaps, this Derek Redmond-like display of character was the defining moment of Liu’s career, should he decide to hang up his spikes there and then.
“For some athletes, it’s just a job,” said Liu in a pre-Athens Olympics interview with Time Magazine. “For me, it’s what I love.”
Liu Xiang shall be back. I just know it.
“For that to happen to one of the greatest hurdlers of all time is a tragedy” - Aries Merritt (quote from NYT)
“I just think he made a small little mistake and ran up on the hurdle a little too quickly and wasn’t prepared to take the hurdle at such a velocity.” – Aries Merritt (quote from Stuff.co.nz)
“I regard him as probably the best hurdler in history and have so much respect for him. It was horrible seeing him limp off like that so you have to go and help people.” – Andy Turner (quote from BBC)
“We know Liu Xiang has been suffering with his Achilles. He had to push hard and when you have to reach for the first barrier and you’ve got a stress injury like an Achilles it can cause you hell and he couldn’t even take off.” – Colin Jackson (quote from Stuff.co.nz)
“My heart goes to Liu Xiang.” – Allen Johnson (from Allen’s Twitter account)