China loses main chance for track glory
Tuesday, 19 August 2008

BEIJING, Aug 18 (bdnews24.com/Reuters) - China lost its main hope for a track gold on Monday when 110 meters hurdles Olympic champion and national hero Liu Xiang pulled out injured from the Games.

His painful departure in front of shocked fans at the Bird's Nest stadium took the gloss off an otherwise magnificent Games for China, who lead with 35 golds on Day Ten and look untouchable even by perennial medal-league winners the United States.

They have 19 gold medals.

After a false start in his first-round heat, Liu, whose face adorns billboards across China, clutched his leg and walked off the track. Fans in Beijing's Bird's Nest stadium looked stunned and volunteers were seen openly weeping.

"Liu was very, very upset," said China's athletics head coach Feng Shuyong of Liu's hamstring injury. "He would not have withdrawn unless the pain was intolerable."

Along with NBA basketball player Yao Ming, the 25-year-old Liu is China's best-known sportsman.

He became his country's first male Olympic track champion in Athens 2004 and was China's 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, Liu was initially selected at age seven as a future high jumper on the basis of bone measurements, but later took to hurdling and became an overnight star and multi-millionaire with gold in 2004.

Chinese fans were upset but sympathetic.

"I am extremely disappointed and I think he may have wanted to win too much and could have caved under the pressure," said 27-year-old He Sheng, who came from a southern province with just one Olympics ticket to see Liu race in Monday's heat.

College student Hu Xinliang, 21, said China had imposed too big a burden of hope on Liu. "He is now free," he said.

Before Liu's event, Usain Bolt breezed through a 200 meters heat in his quest to be the first man to win the Olympic sprint double since Carl Lewis in 1984.

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

Mugging for cameras on his way to the block and wearing new golden shoes with "Beijing 200m" on them, Bolt barely broke sweat as he strode through his 200m heat, clearly keeping some juice in the tank for Wednesday's final as he slowed to cross second.

JAMAICAN JOY

The 21-year-old's performances, including his astonishing 100m final win when he pumped his chest in joy before crossing the line, have injected some much-needed glamour into athletics and brought celebrations across his Caribbean homeland.

Jamaica's women also took a clean sweep of medals in the women's 100m on Sunday night.

So what makes the land of laid-back reggae so speedy too?

"It's part of the natural ability of Jamaicans, I don't know, maybe it's in the water," Sports Minister Olivia Grange said.

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

Since World War Two, only the United States and the Soviet Union have topped final Games medals tables.

But in the last Games in Athens, China came second, taking 32 golds to America's 36. This time, the hosts should go one better, even though the Americans can make ground in track-and-field.

That might usher in a new era of Chinese Olympics dominance to match Beijing's emerging global economic superpower status.

State news agency Xinhua said China's dominance of the Games reflected the traditional "host effect" of the Olympics, while a senior Chinese team official cautioned their medals haul would probably slow down in the second half of the Games.

Apart from China and the U.S., Britain are the only other country to have reached double figures in Beijing so far thanks to a strong showing in rowing, cycling, sailing and—more surprisingly—swimming.

The 2012 Olympics hosts have 11 golds and are on course for the best total since they first organized the Games in 1908. British media are already calling it "The Great Haul of China."

The first gold on Monday went to Australia when Emma Snowsill won the women's triathlon by over a minute, having time to collect a flag and slap hands with spectators before finishing.

"It's a fantastic feeling," she said.

Swimming phenomenon Phelps was finally resting on Monday after writing a new page in sports history with his record eight golds at one Olympics. That took him past fellow swimmer Mark Spitz's 1972 feat.

Phelps, who howled in protest at his first swimming lesson when a child because he did not want to get his face wet, is the most successful Olympian of all time.

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