BEIJING – Chinese athletics hero Liu Xiang made an emotional apology Tuesday to his fans for pulling out of the Olympics with an “unbearable” foot injury, while vowing to rise again.
Liu and the nation’s dream of gold in the 110m hurdles ended with just a few steps at the “Bird’s Nest” National Stadium on Monday when he hobbled off the track with what transpired to be a long-term problem with his right foot.
“I just feel so sorry. Because there were so many people supporting me, I told myself I had to run, but I just couldn’t do it,” Liu said in interviews with the state-run press that were published and aired on Tuesday.
Amid online anger from some fans that he had not revealed the extent of his injury earlier and built-up expectations that he would win, Liu wrote an open letter on the blog of one of his coaches.
“Please believe that the hurt and sadness in my heart cannot be smaller than yours,” he wrote.
“At the same time, please believe I am the same Liu Xiang as before.”
In one interview with state television, Liu said the pain in his foot was simply too much.
“It was unbearable. If I had finished the race, I would have risked my tendon. I could not describe my feeling at that moment,” a visibly downcast Liu said.
“I never quit easily. I am not that type of person.”
The 25-year-old defending Olympic champion and former world record holder also sought to reassure his fans that they had not seen the last of him on the track.
“There will be more opportunities next year, there will be more opportunities later… I must be optimistic, I can’t complain about destiny,” he said.
“I’m one that can’t accept failure easily, I will rise up, it’s in my character.”
Liu’s shock withdrawal from the heat deprived China’s 1.3 billion people of what they had widely expected to be their most memorable moment of the Games — gold in one of the high-profile track events.
Liu became the first Chinese man to win an athletics gold with his victory in the 110m hurdles at the Athens Olympics, ensuring hero worship in a nation that has traditionally been successful in lower-profile sports.
He spent the next four years as one of China’s two biggest sporting personalities, alongside basketball star Yao Ming, and raked in millions of dollars through a dizzying array of sponsorship deals.
Their fame in China was partly built on the fact they had succeeded in sporting endeavours traditionally dominated by western nations.
In this light, China had pinned its hopes on Liu winning Thursday’s final of the 110m hurdles becoming the symbolic high point of the Beijing Olympics, capping off the nation’s overall dominance at the Games.
Nevertheless, China’s leadership and media rallied around Liu on Tuesday.
Vice President Xi Jinping, who has overall political control for the Olympics, wished Liu a speedy recovery and told him and his coach, Sun Haiping, not to lose heart.
In what was an almost uniform message throughout the government-controlled press, the Beijing News appealed to Liu’s millions of fans to show understanding.
“To withdraw from a race is not to give up… Liu Xiang had no choice and this was a moment of great courage,” the Beijing News said in comments echoed by other papers.
Liu came into the Games as one of China’s most marketable athletes, earning about 23 million dollars last year in endorsements from companies such as Nike, Visa and Cadillac, according to the 2007 annual rich list by Forbes magazine.
His big sponsors rushed to support him on Tuesday, with Nike seeking to put a positive spin on his failure and rushing out an ad in the Chinese press with the punchline: “Love sport even when it breaks your heart”.
– AFP /ls
Channel News Asia