LONDON – The sight was both pathetic and ennobling, depressing and uplifting.
There was Liu Xiang, his second consecutive Olympics ruined almost immediately by catastrophic injury, hopping toward the finish line on his one good leg. The right one, the one that betrayed him in Beijing four years ago and shockingly again here Tuesday morning, could bear no weight.
So Liu hopped. And an Olympic Stadium crowd of 80,000 that had gasped just moments earlier when the Chinese hero crashed on the very first hurdle of his 110-meter preliminary heat began to applaud.
When Liu hopped to the final hurdle, he put both hands on it and bent over – in pain, dejection, or a combination of the two. That's when Hungarian competitor Balazs Baji came to Liu's side and lifted his arm in the air, the way a boxing referee would acknowledge the winner of a fight.
[ Photos: Liu Xiang’s powerful gesture after injury ]
"I'm so sorry for him, because I respect very much what he's doing and I like him," Baji said later. "I was just so sorry.
"I didn't say anything, because I just couldn't. I just couldn't say. I think I showed my respect."
As the entire stadium showed its respect, Liu hopped on to the finish line in symbolic completion of a competition gone badly wrong.
"We think that's the true spirit of the Olympics," Chinese team leader Feng Shu Yong said. "Winning is important, but he [was] still determined to go to the end line."
Once there, two more members of his heat stepped in. Jackson Quinonez of Spain and Andy Turner of Great Britain helped him hobble off the track.
"Liu Xiang is very important for the Olympic Games," Quinonez said. "I am sorry for him."
Said Turner: "I wouldn't wish that on my worst enemy."
After seeing the 2004 gold medalist fail to clear a single hurdle in the next two Olympic Games, you wonder whether the burden of being Liu Xiang is more than his body can bear. He's gone from national hero to heartbreak kid.
The 29-year-old is an athletic star on par in China with basketball icon Yao Ming, and greatness has been expected from him since before he captured the 110 hurdles in Olympic record time in Athens.
But in a sadistic twist of fate and tendon, the saddest sight of the Beijing Olympics repeated itself here Tuesday morning. Four years ago, Liu felt his right Achilles tendon and hamstring give out on a false start in the 110-meter hurdles, and he withdrew. It was a shocking punch to the gut in a nation where his performanceswas expected to be the homeland highlight for a billion Chinese.
Having recovered well enough to run the world's second-fastest time of 2012 in May, London was expected to be a return to glory for Liu. Instead, concerns about his Achilles tendon began to surface last week. Those worst fears were realized when he lurched out of the blocks and smashed his lead foot directly into the first hurdle of his preliminary heat, not even coming close to clearing it.
According to Feng, the preliminary diagnosis is an Achilles injury, but Liu was being taken to the hospital Tuesday morning for further examination. Meanwhile, most of China tried to scrape itself up off the floor. The outpouring of lamentation was instantaneous on Twitter – and even in the track venue the horde of Chinese reporters seemed stunned.
"I cried when he fell," said Chen Tiantian, a reporter for Shanghai Radio and TV Weekly. "I was very sad."
Shanghai is Liu's home province. Chen said Liu's parents refused to come to the stadium for the preliminary heats on Tuesday.
"They're scared," Chen said. "Maybe they know."
But there was no overt sense of foreboding at the track before Liu ran. American hurdler Aries Merritt, the fastest preliminary qualifier and potential gold-medal favorite now, said he sensed nothing wrong with Liu.
"Before the competition I spoke with him, and he was well," Merritt said. "Nothing was wrong with him going into the race. … But as you saw, anything can happen. It's the hurdles. To hit a hurdle is to lose."
[Related: The world reacts to Liu Xiang's injury ]
There were plenty of hurdles hit in Liu's heat. It was a mayhem-filled disaster – three hurdlers failed to finish and one was disqualified – but all eyes focused on Liu.
When he lifted off his right leg to clear the first hurdle, he went nowhere near high enough. End of his Olympics, seconds after it began.
"What I saw in slow motion on the big screen, he couldn't take off," Feng said. "At the moment of taking off, the tendon wouldn't bear very, very big pressure. In that moment, it happened."
What happened in the moments that followed was a testament to an athlete's Olympic spirit and to the spirit of his competitors. But it was a miserable shame that another Games had to end this way for Liu Xiang.
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