When Liu Xiang went down with an injury during the 110-meter hurdles in London, the nation's most populous country was gripped by disappointment as its leading track star failed to finish a race for the second consecutive Olympic Games. Yet Xiang, 29, managed to salve those wounds and provide a touching epitaph to his Olympic career when he hobbled to the final hurdle on the London course and kissed it, providing a poignant capstone to his career that felt akin to a wrestler leaving his shoes in the center of the ring.
That entire scene played out across China to a touching piece of commentary on state run TV network CCTV. A commentator became so choked up that he was on the verge of tears, all while likening Liu's failure to finish to a soldier not having a gun. The raw emotion in the telecast was so vibrant that NBC and BBC played it on their own telecasts as well.
Weeks later, that seemingly spontaneous moment has been tarnished with revelations that the tear-filled, emotional commentary was apparently scripted by CCTV itself, creating outrage among Chinese citizens that has led to more than a million comments across different social media. Reports that the coverage of Liu's send-off was premeditated began to emerge on Tuesday (and were brought to Fourth-Place Medal's attention by USA Today's Chris Chase) when the head of CCTV's on-air commentary unit, Sha Tong, admitted to the Nanjing Oriental Guardian that the group had four scripted Liu endings.
Eventually, the primary commentator for the event, Yang Jian, employed the most dramatic possible conclusion when Liu collapsed after the first hurdle and limped to the final hurdle, ending his second consecutive unsuccessful run at an Olympic Games.
In fact, Jian may have been under fairly explicit instructions to provide just such an backdrop to the race; according to the South China Morning Post, via an Agence French Press report, a senior editor for CCTV's Olympic coverage group made it clear that commentary surrounding the event would have to take a very specific tone.
"Instructions were circulated among our colleagues saying it should be considered a victory as long as Liu showed up to the starting line," said the editor, who was quoted anonymously.
There is no concrete proof that Liu had already conceived of his hobble and kiss gesture before the starter's gun went off, though plenty on Chinese social media outlets have already rushed to that conclusion. The one thing that is certain is that Liu had to know that he would struggle to even finish a race in his heat due to a serious ankle injury that developed during his training for London.
According to Shaghaiist.com, CCTV was aware that Liu was unlikely to finish the event because Yang learned of that pre-existing injury before the event began. He then turned that information over to Sha, who informed CCTV deputy editor Li Ting. With the knowledge of those executives, Yang then scripted his four potential commentaries. According to Agence French Press, CCTV was barred from revealing details about the injury by the country's propaganda department.
Meanwhile, two Chinese reporters -- CCTV's own Dong Rina and an unnamed correspondent from Xinhua News Agency -- both reported that Liu was administered two numbing injections in his ankle shortly before lining up for the race. Those painkillers would have helped Liu finish the race, whether or not they could have kept him competitive, though the head coach of the Chinese athletic team, Feng Shuyong, has denied that Liu was given any injections on race day.
There is ample reason to believe that the Chinese government would have an incentive for making Liu's Olympic ending as dramatic as possible, too. According to CNN and Forbes Magazine, Liu's endorsement contracts skyrocketed after his unexpected gold medal in Athens, leading to a windfall of more than $25 million annually as he pushed every product from Nike to BMW, with smaller deals with Chinese milk companies and nutrition supplements mixed in for good measure.
Because all these deals were made in China, the government received a healthy cut of the endorsement action, which continued to prosper, albeit at a slightly decreased rate, following the Beijing Games, despite Liu withdrawing from the hurdles with an injury.
Nonetheless, both the sprinter and government authorities have vehemently denied that Liu's actions in London were premeditated, with the track star himself insisting that he felt healthy before the race and offering up a personal narrative to CCTV about why he did what he did.
"When I lost my balance at the first hurdle, I felt my foot was whipped by someone and then I fell," he recalled. "I didn't know what was going on and just felt a lot of pain. I was sitting on the ground in pain and felt totally blank."
"When a stadium worker pushed out a wheelchair, I saw it and didn't want to sit in it," he added. "So I hopped to the finish line. When I passed the final hurdle, this thought just popped up in my mind and I wanted to kiss that hurdle."
Whether or not you believe that official storyline is up to you. The Chinese public seems to retain a healthy skepticism of Liu's claims, with users of Weibo, a Chinese service similar to Twitter, expressing shock and often demanding an apology from the highly compensated sprinter for his role in a "world class farce." In aggregate total, there have been more than a million comments related to the Liu-CCTV scandal across Chinese social media outlets.
Those comments just prove that no matter how hard it tries, CCTV and the Chinese government can't completely control or manipulate user reaction, even if they have a hand in molding the commentary that accompanies it in the first place.