National Hero Falls Before the First Hurdle

APNational hero and defending Olympic 110-meter hurdles champion Liu Xiang was Beijing's Olympic poster boy.
BEIJING -- Chinese fans were stunned into silence and tears as national hero and 110-meter hurdles Olympic champion Liu Xiang hobbled out of the games injured on Monday.

The painful departure of the country's most popular sportsman and main hope for a track gold from a packed Bird's Nest stadium cast a huge shadow over an otherwise magnificent games for China.

The hosts lead the medals table with a seemingly unbeatable 37 golds, with the United States way behind with 20.

These games have been as closely choreographed as any in the Olympics 112-year history, although for many observers the impression persists that the hosts are trying too hard to create a perfect event.

Beijing police have received 77 applications to stage protests in specially designated parks during the games, but so far none has been approved, state media reported.

Far from the public eye, Beijing has also stepped up repression in ethnic Tibetan regions during the games, turning parts into "a virtual prison," the Free Tibet Campaign said.

Similar, although more diplomatically worded, complaints were made by Tibet's exiled spiritual leader the Dalai Lama this week.

Nevertheless, it is excellence in the sporting arena which has grabbed most of the headlines so far.

Jamaica stayed in the limelight, with Usain Bolt breezing through two rounds of the 200 meters in his quest to be the first man to win the Olympic sprint double since Carl Lewis in 1984.

The host of the 2012 Games, Britain, picked up another gold -- its 12th -- in cycling to regain third place in the medals table and chalk up with their strongest showing since 1920.

But it was Liu's sad story that dominated attention.

After a false start in his first-round heat, the man whose face adorns billboards across China clutched his leg and walked off the track. Fans looked stunned, some wept openly.

"Liu was very, very upset," said athletics head coach Feng Shuyong of the tendon injury that compounded a hamstring problem. "He would not have withdrawn unless the pain was intolerable."

Liu, 25, was more than just China's best hope for track gold, he was also the country's best-known sportsman, surpassing even NBA basketball player Yao Ming.

His personal coach for 12 years, Sun Haiping, wept, as did some Chinese journalists.

Liu became his country's first male Olympic track champion in Athens in 2004 and was its best chance for an athletics gold in Beijing though he faced a stiff rival in Cuba's Dayron Robles.

Such was the weight of national expectation on Liu that he had not even been allowed to drive a car for fear of injury in a carefully closeted buildup to the Beijing Games.

The son of a Shanghai truck-driver, he was initially selected at age 7 as a future high jumper based on bone measurements but later took to hurdling and became an overnight star and multimillionaire with gold in 2004.

Sports officials had warned failure to win gold in Beijing would render his Athens win "meaningless," according to his coach, and some Chinese fans reacted in anger.

"Afraid of Robles, so fake an injury?" one comment read on online portal Sina. "Play your role of a coward, and people around the world will look down upon you."

As the dust settled, though, anger seemed to give way to sympathy for Liu and the incredible pressure he had been under.

Before Liu's sad drama, "Lightning" Bolt again performed for the cameras as he emerged for the first round of his signature event, wearing golden shoes with "Beijing 200m" on them.

Bolt barely broke sweat as he strode through two rounds of the 200 meter, keeping some juice in the tank for Wednesday's final.

The charismatic sprinter won the blue riband 100-meter final at the weekend, smashing the world record to join record-breaking American swimmer Michael Phelps as the 2008 Olympics poster-boys.

It is China, though, that is emerging as the new superpower of sport -- perhaps an inevitable trend given that the 1.3 billion population represent one-fifth of humanity and a formidable sports system is geared to maximizing medals.

Ten days in, the hosts look untouchable even for perennial medal-league winners the United States, who have 20.

China came second in Athens, taking 32 golds to America's 36. Swimming phenomenon Phelps was resting on Monday and looking forward to going home to his family, friends and his dog in Baltimore after his record eight golds at one games.

Ominously for the world's other swimmers, he said he wanted to swim for at least another four years to compete in 2012 and has not ruled out trying for nine medals next time.

"I really don't know what my program will be, but nothing is impossible," he said in an interview.