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Home  /  Inside China  /  Liu Xiang's dramatic Olympic failure and the mixed feelings of the Chinese public
Liu Xiang's dramatic Olympic failure and the mixed feelings of the Chinese public print version
liu_xiang_fall_497China's most popular athlete, Liu Xiang, is acclaiming the unflattering title of 'Liu Shuaishaui' ('falling Liu'), after a dramatic tumble on the 110m hurdles race at the London Olympics. While the popularity of Liu was never in question, some popular reactions in China express little support and question the problematic morality behind his failure.

"Heartbreak in China" and "1.3 billion shed tears" were titles that press releases in the English language chose to describe the collapse of Liu Xiang (刘翔) in the preliminary round of the 110m hurdles in the London Olympics. Four years after China's most highly acclaimed athlete made a Beijing afternoon turn dark for the Olympics' host, a new tragedy hits Liu and shatters his dream of another Olympic title. Yet this time, while Western media depicts the dramatic story and attempts to reflect the tragic sentiments in China, voices in China are much more heterogenic and do not completely 'buy' the heartbreaking scene that took place on London's running track.

Liu knocked the first hurdle, injuring his right ankle falling to the ground. Long after the other runners finished the race (except for Noga from Poland who also met an 'angry hurdle'), he got up and headed towards the dressing room, before changing his mind and jumping on his left foot until the finish line on a hurdle free lane.

What made Liu Xiang fall, the encounter with the hurdle or a latent injury? Liu's coach, Sun Haiping (孙海平) mentioned in the few days preceding the race that his runner suffers from an injury. This had already repressed Chinese hopes for a medal. Liu Xiang wore a strapping on his right heel in the race, indicating of his vulnerable condition. After a wonderful competition year, Liu, who took a 13-month break after Beijing 2008, seemed well prepared for London, but his body broke down again in the most crucial week of four years.

Is China standing behind its 'hero' again? The flying Chinese (zhongguo feiren 中国飞人) is still a popular icon, yet judging by Chinese netizens and journalists reactions, many questions pop up this time around. The most extreme criticism calls the entire episode one big act. Accordingly, Liu knew he was in no shape to compete for gold and preferred to fake an injury so his loss would be dramatic. This would produce new sympathy towards him and perhaps maintain his status as favorite of sponsors and allow him to enjoy more income as a spokesman of products and brands (daiyan fei 代言费).

The most widely expressed criticism is much less harsh though. Many netizens ask why Liu Xiang had to compete and risk himself in injury if he and his coach knew he could not truly compete. Besides mentioning the possibility that Liu wanted to make a festive exit, such voices suggest that he didn't want to 'lose face' by simply avoiding competition. An online poll by asked netizens whether they sympathize with Liu Xiang after his tumble or rather not feel sympathy because 'he shouldn't have competed'. A surprising ~60% chose the second option, indicating that the 7/8/2012 drama did not touch upon the hearts of the entire Chinese population.

 liu_xiang_fall_497 liu_xiang_papers_432 

 Liu Xiang's tumble (top left), newspaper headlines following Liu's drop (top right), and a caricature by that relflects the mixed judgement of Liu's performance

Amusing netizen reactions (brought by Hexun 和讯网) include an invitation that Liu come to Xishuangbanna 西双版纳 in south Yunnan and recoup through the humid weather and local herbs, a statement that 'the Olympics created this hero and then destructed it', or a suggestion that the milk company that Liu represents (Yili) not only poisons China but had apparently also ruined Liu. A Hans Christian Andersen inspired netizen determined that 'the king is naked' (皇帝没穿衣服), showing perhaps, better than anyone that China is becoming a little tired of crying over its fragile athlete.

Is it the weak legs, a tragic accident, or perhaps a psychological 'choke' that wrecked Liu's gold medal aspirations? Luckily for Liu Xiang, his phenomenal rise in Athens 2004, winning China's first gold in athletics, will keep his legacy a success story. But in age 29, Liu's Olympic career seems to come to an end, otherwise in Rio 2016 the Chinese public will become even more skeptic about his prospect and talk about the possibility of 'san lian shuai' (三连摔) - 'three consecutive falls'.

While the nationalist sentiments are still strong in Chinese society, the reactions to Liu Xiang's failure also show that Chinese preserve latent suspicion towards its stars, much due to awareness of the corrupting potential of wealth and commercial campaigns.

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