Liu's injured tendon has exposed the real weakness of Chinese sport - secrecy

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 19 August, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 19 August, 2008, 12:00am

Achilles was the hero of Homer's Iliad - a Greek warrior considered the most handsome of the regiment of mythical fighters assembled against Troy, as well as the quickest.

Equally dashing and quick, Liu Xiang is the son of a Shanghai truck driver. He was all but adopted by insightful athletics coach Sun Haiping, who whisked off his protege to a secret training camp at a tender age. Behind closed doors he was moulded into a potent symbol of modern, winning China.

When released, he grabbed the gold medal in Athens four years ago, then the world record, and more. All this high achievement with a face for teenage girls and sponsors to die for.

Magical, magnificent, mysterious - call him what you will, but most certainly a sporting legend, and definitely no myth.

Liu's expected triumph on home turf after his victorious sorties overseas was to be the highlight of the Olympics - the last medal slotted into the jigsaw to complete the picture showing China now rules the global sports empire.

Cue Greek tragedy.

You have to admit, it was on the cards. The massive media and corporate hype - all those passing buses with a large image of a beaming Liu extolling the virtues of cow juice and urging you to turn into a Visa-owning, Coke-drinking, Amway toothpaste-buying slave, had to have an anti-climax.

Only the most pessimistic heads said it would end in tears. And it did.

What a pity for the fans. They had transformed the Bird's Nest into a citadel in which to worship and welcome their national hero, ready for him to repeat his achievements on hallowed soil.

What tragic timing, though, that a proverbial arrow, similar to that which struck down Achilles, had to also strike down China's own dashing, darting idol.

On the eve of history, too - just as Liu and his brothers and sisters in sporting arms were about to conquer their Olympics version of Troy, the globe's former colossus, the US.

An achilles tendon is to blame for Liu's exit - one that had been nagging him for six or seven years, the coach blubbed.

We knew something was wrong. Sports fans aren't dumb drones who just chew on nuts, drink cold beer and cheer when the big digital screen tells them to. They have the intuition of a bat and can smell a freshly fertilised field from 110 metres.

Liu has been training in seclusion for the past eight months, making only four international outings. He never speaks. His coaches do that for him and Sun is among the most candid you'll find, popping his head occasionally over from China's great wall of secrets to offer a rare insight. But even he had lost his voice recently.

A feverish media went into overdrive with gossip, that which only produces more gossip and wild speculation when the facts are outlawed.

But the dark forces enjoyed spinning the rumour mills, as it added to the confusion.

At the weekend, inside sources were quoted as saying Liu had shown amazing form in training, running under the 13 second mark, even closing in on the 12.90 mark.

On Sunday, rumour had it that Liu was troubled by a heel injury, described, not surprisingly, in vague terms.

But later the same day in a press conference, deputy sports minister Cui Dalin said: 'Liu is normal.' Then we were presented with a lame Liu 24 hours later.

But why confuse the faithful? Disappointment is part of sport and there would be no winners without it. Do they think the Chinese sports fans - and the rest of us - could not cope? How dare they patronise us if this is so.

Were the technocrats in suits afraid they had hyped Liu too highly - and were now worried of a backlash if he lost?

'He'll never beat the Cuban, so just pull him out?' perhaps was the line of thinking.

Is Liu's pull-out part of the disastrous plot to ensure a perfect Olympics, too? And an attempt to avoid a big loss of face if Liu failed even to make the final, or only make fourth if he did?

Conspiracy theories will abound.

Maybe Liu bottled it with Dayron Robles looming large - caved in under the pressure of 1.3 billion sets of eyes and more on him - plus the worried look of officials he has been making look good for so long

Take note of coach Sun's tears. He shed them for the world yesterday, upset as we all are at being denied the fantasy. He is not lying when he says Liu was injured - and how they both tried to break through the pain.

An 'Achilles' heel' is also a catch-all to describe a person's principal weakness.

The mythical arrow that humbled Homer's hero and the people's hero, Liu, has just shot to the heart of the matter, and exposed China's sports machine's vulnerability. Secrecy.

Years Liu's tendon had been a problem: 7