The man who fell to his knees when a nation expected the most from him is back on his feet.
Chinese track fans had watched in anger and frustration as superstar hurdler Liu Xiang hobbled off the field at the Beijing Olympics. Now that he has returned to win his third consecutive Asian Athletics Championships and China’s National Games titles, fans are wondering: Is their Flying Man back?
Liu Xiang -- his name means “to soar” -- defended his 110-meter hurdles title at the East Asian Games in Hong Kong on Friday, finishing in 13.66 seconds and fueling hopes that the answer is yes.
Liu knows what it is to carry the hopes of a nation.
On home soil in the summer of 2008, Liu was set to defend his title as the first Chinese runner to win Olympic gold.
It was not to be.
His coach, Sun Haiping, and not a few members of the Chinese media burst into tears as Liu limped away and out of sight because of an injured Achilles’ tendon, unable to run in the qualifying heat. Gone was the eagerly awaited clash between Liu and Dayron Robles of Cuba, who two months earlier had beaten Liu’s world record of 12.88 seconds by a hundredth of a second. It was a particularly crushing blow to the 48,000 fans who had packed the “Bird’s Nest” stadium.
Repercussions were quick. The estimated $2-million fee per endorsement Liu reportedly earned from sponsors such as Nike, Coca-Cola, Cadillac, China Mobile and Visa shrank to $200,000. China’s second-greatest athlete behind only NBA star Yao Ming had somehow failed his country.
“The fans simply could not understand why he did not crawl to the end of the runway,” said Zhang Ruyi, who was the team’s high jump coach at the time. He watched Liu Xiang grow up on the track and is troubled by the public’s lack of sympathy for a normal sports injury.
“The fans think, ‘The country has given you so much, only if you crawl to the end will you have done your best,’ ” he said.
For 13 months after the Olympics, the 26-year-old was hidden from public view, recovering and training at home in Shanghai after undergoing surgery in Houston. He made a comeback to the international scene in the Shanghai Golden Grand Prix in September and nearly pulled off a victory, running in a shiver behind the winner, American Terrence Trammell.
Then, in October, Liu sprinted to gold in the most-watched 13.34 seconds of China’s National Games.
The anticipation that he will regain his world-record form grew in November after Liu sailed effortlessly past his competitors again in the Asian Athletics Championships. Though his 13.50 clocking was off his personal best, Liu’s coach Sun stressed that the hurdler was under strict orders to “take it easy, because his competitors are weak, and his foot is still healing.”
Sun anticipates that Liu’s complete recovery will probably be early next year. Liu’s next major race is expected to be the 2010 World Indoor Athletics Championships in Doha, Qatar, next March.
Meanwhile, the level of adoration is approaching pre-Beijing highs. Tens of thousands of fans turned up in the rain to watch Liu race at the National Games. Nike ran a commercial celebrating Liu’s recovery and return so many times that the same ad played every few minutes and sometimes back-to-back during the event.
Few would disagree that prized Chinese athletes still largely remain public servants, with coaches assigned to them and part of their earnings sent to national sports associations. But in Liu, the Chinese public also sees a hardworking young man who is handsome and charismatic, has respect for his coach and is a good son to his parents.
“He is very lucky,” Zhang said, reflecting on Liu’s enormous celebrity in China. “He was born into an epoch of this country’s rise. China needs someone to represent us -- someone who is the absolute best in the world.”
Liu’s coaches and race organizers handed out special privileges as they tried to help him avoid the gauntlet of public attention in Ji’nan, site of the National Games.
He skipped the opening ceremony and arrived a day late. Then he was ferried out through a back entrance to avoid a throng of photographers.
As the announcer introduced him to the crowd, a solemn Liu waved to the sold-out stadium, a sea of cameras, camera phones and camcorders all pointed in the same direction.
“A year ago I would never have thought that I’d be back on the track of the National Games,” said Liu after his triumph.
“At that time I doubted myself and felt uncertainty toward the future. But bit by bit I recovered, and I gained self-awareness. I believe in myself.”
Reporters swarmed Liu as soon as he crossed the finish line and followed tight on his heels as the champion stripped off his track suit and launched it into the crowd.
That night a photo appeared on a popular Chinese news site of a young woman clutching a white square of fabric, accompanied by the caption, “Liu Xiang madness, pants rent to pieces, fan overjoyed to grab a scrap.”
Chinese television replayed his race for days afterward.
“After a year’s ‘heart’ work, he has matured,” Zhang said. “We see him differently now. There are a lot of hopes . . . a lot of obstacles but a lot of hopes.”
The Shanghai event proved that. Ticket sales had slowed after superstar sprinter Usain Bolt pulled out. But when Liu was added to the roster, thousands immediately lined up to buy tickets.
Sun, when asked how this pressure compares with that of last summer, said, “The pressure is very high. He was fighting to death to get the best time before.
“Now, he must not make a single mistake lest he disappoint his fans.”
Yung is a special correspondent based in Shanghai.