A career of agony and ecstasy

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 12 April, 2015, 7:29am
UPDATED : Sunday, 12 April, 2015, 7:29am

The Olympic Games are sometimes cited as evidence that one group or another with shared racial characteristics is more or less competitive in a particular kind of event. An enduring myth was that Asian athletes could not compete with the world's best in sprint events. It was finally debunked at Athens in 2004 when China's Liu Xiang burst onto the scene to take the gold medal in the 110-metres hurdles, an event he continued to dominate until the devastating heartbreak of withdrawal because of injury from the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

An Achilles tendon injury that has dogged his career since has finally resulted in China's greatest track and field athlete announcing his retirement at age 31. Fresh from breaking the world record and winning the 2007 world title, Liu was hotly tipped to take the Olympic gold again in front of a wildly patriotic crowd at the Beijing Games. The reaction when he limped out of the first heat ranged from shock and tears to undeserved scorn and anger. He lamented later that he had dreamt of raising the Chinese flag.

Despite an injury that would have forced others to quit, the Shanghai native repeatedly displayed the courage as well as the talent of a champion who might otherwise have dominated his event for a decade. In the spirit of the Olympic Creed, which puts taking part in the Games ahead of winning, he risked fronting the starter again at the 2012 London Olympics, only to clatter into the first flight of hurdles in pain.

What followed is now a famous Olympic moment. After struggling to his feet and hobbling towards the stadium's exit tunnel, he turned, faced the track and then, on his left foot, hopped back and finished the race. At the last hurdle he stopped to bend and kiss it before crossing the line - to a standing ovation from 80,000 spectators.

Liu became one of China's highest-earning individual sports stars, along with the likes of former NBA star Yao Ming and grand-slam winning tennis star Li Na. Few would begrudge him that after a career of such agony and shared ecstasy.