Monday, August 18, 2008
REPORTING FROM ... THE BEIJING BUREAU
The hopes of a nation rested upon Liu Xiang's shoulders.
Liu Xiang pulled up at the sound of the starting gun, grimacing and clutching his leg as the gun sounded again to signal a false start. While the other athletes returned to the blocks, the man the 91,000-plus came to watch tore off his number and limped towards the exit. The 110-meter hurdles heat proceeded without him, and just like that, a national hero's Olympics were over, and with it a nation's hopes and dreams.
This is not hyperbole. Liu Xiang was Beijing 2008. Here's what China Daily columnist Raymond Zhou had to say: "I only care about Liu Xiang because I feel Liu Xiang winning the gold medal is tantamount to Barack Obama winning the presidency in the United States. Because it's about more than sports. It's about shattering stereotypes that Asians are intrinsically not good at track and field."
How this could have happened to the most closely watched man in China—"He can't even drink a bottle of water if he doesn't know exactly where it comes from," said one source—is perhaps a lesson in the whimsy of sports. Sometimes, one just has to wonder if higher elements aren't conspiring against us. Ask a Cubs fan if you don't know what we mean.
But this was worse. This was 100 years of disappointment neatly packaged into one sucker punch to the gut. Tears flowed inside the National Stadium.
CCTV devoted an entire Olympic roundup show to the injured star. Several reporters choked up while delivering the news. Sun Haiping, Liu Xiang's coach for the past 12 years, broke down at a press conference after asserting, "Liu Xiang, after arriving at the track, he kept persevering, he kept fighting with all he had …"
Someone wrote in to a TV station, "Liu Xiang getting injured was like my own child getting injured."
Beijing TV re-aired a weekend fluff piece in which its reporter, camped outside Liu Xiang's training facility last week, caught a glimpse of the national hero through chain-linked fence. Somehow the story filled three minutes.
In the Chinese blogosphere, there are whispers that Liu Xiang faked his injury because he didn't think he could beat current world-record holder Dayron Robles. Some are downright angry . Others are demanding refunds for their tickets to the 110-meter hurdles finals.
But the majority of the opinions square with this one, found on a message board with more than 38,000 (and counting) topical comments: "Liu Xiang has always been the pride of China! We'll always support him! No matter whether he wins or loses!"
Later that night, at the conclusion of the day's track and field events, the Bird's Nest's giant screens showed a highlight package that included Liu Xiang's face. First it was from the morning, his expression contorted with pain and the initial stirrings of unspeakable disappointment. A little later he appeared again, this time as part of a montage set to the Olympic song "Forever Friends." It was an image everyone here is familiar with: the moment the hurdler crossed the finish line in Athens, his eyes lighting up as it dawned on him that he'd just pulled the biggest upset in his country's sporting history, exertion giving way to pure jubilation. It was a poignant moment, and one people here will want to remember.
Who knows when they'll see it again?
ALSO ON THE PODIUM
The Christian-Science Monitor offers a photo slideshow recap of the first week of the Olympics.
It's possible this got buried under NBC's endless (though deserved) hype of Michael Phelps, but we'd like to point out what we think has been the most surprising performance of these Games. China's Zhang Juanjuan, an archer, came into these Games ranked No. 27 in the world. She knocked off the top three ranked players to become the first non-Korean to win women's Olympic archery gold since 1984.
And now for the other end of the spectrum: the Chinese men's soccer team. Sports commentators here have a favorite saying when it concerns men's soccer: you can lose, but just don't embarrass us. Lo and behold, the Chinese team did both.
Xiong Wei is against smoking, so much so that he placed an ad in a newspaper offering free Olympics tickets to 10 smokers who would promise to give up smoking for a year. People's Dailytracked down some of those ticket recipients, which included a 20-per-day smoker and a 14-year-old middle school student.