Beijing (AsiaNews) - Chinese fans were stunned by Liu Xiang's fall in the 110 metre hurdles heat yesterday. In Beijing, Liu had also fallen in the opening heat, but he had won gold in Athens in 2004.
The Xinhua news agency, which called the incident a "tragedy," described Liu as a "national hero and sports icon in China." However, amid the declarations of solidarity, comments posted on blogs and other online sites were also critical, some voicing suspicions.
Liu Xiang, 29, appeared to have recovered from problems to the heel that dating back to May 2008 before the Beijing Olympics. In the months leading up to that event, sponsors had used Liu to push for all sorts of products, with Liu literally wrapped in the flag visible everywhere.
As he crashed into the first hurdle after leaving the starting block, "aware that 1.3 billion pairs of eyes would be on him again," as he put it, history repeated itself.
When He got up, he hopped on his left foot to the final hurdle and kissed it, before getting on a wheelchair to be wheeled away by medical staff.
Back at home, people cannot understand why he would run, knowing that his right Achilles' tendon was not fully healed.
Online, some wondered why Liu did not do warm-ups like other athletes. Others believe he kept everything hushed up to save his publicity contracts.
Feng Sheyong, the leader of China's athletics team, praised Liu. "He got up and finished" the race, Feng said. "It shows that it's not all about winning, but showing the Olympic spirit to the world.
A CCTV reporter in London said propaganda authorities issued gag orders. "An instruction was circulated among our colleagues on Monday, saying it should be considered a victory as long as Liu showed up at the starting line."
On some blogs, people had already noted that Liu was not at his best and were expecting him to fail. Others wondered why his trainer kept the truth about the recordman's problems.
China's attitude towards sport has also been criticised, especially its focus on winning gold medals without promoting sports at all levels.
"In a country where only a few primary and middle schools have sports fields or physical exercises, it is ridiculous to count on Liu to save our face," said Huang Jianxiang, a sports commentator, on Sina Weibo. "Liu's past glory used to be a shield to justifying the juguo tizhi [whole nation system], but the failure has rendered it useless today."
In London, many of Liu's fellow athletes came out in favour of his presence. "It must be hard for that to happen for the second time in a row. He's a great athlete," said Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt, adding that Liu Xiang is a "true champion".