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Liu Xiang out

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James Reynolds | 12:12 UK time, Monday, 18 August 2008

In case you hadn't heard, Liu Xiang is out. China's great Olympic hope - the country's most famous athlete - pulled out of the 110m hurdles because he was injured.

I was in the stadium when it all happened - peering through a set of hefty binoculars from my seat near the finishing line.

Liu XiangShortly after 11:30 in the morning, everyone in the Olympic stadium started looking towards the tunnel near the starting line. The athletes taking part in the final heat of the opening round of the 110m hurdles were escorted into the stadium. They were led out by the man in a red China tracksuit drawn in lane two - Liu Xiang. At this point, we all thought he looked fine - if a little subdued. Then, during the warm-up it slowly became clear that something was wrong. Liu Xiang looked like he was limping a bit - but it was hard to tell for sure. A friend of mine, watching on TV, then texted me: "the TV pics show him in huge amounts of pain." But most of us in the crowd still had no idea how badly injured he was.

The runners settled into their blocks. The starter fired the gun - but it was a false start. Liu Xiang hobbled a few steps forward. Then he turned back and quietly took off the race stickers taped to his legs - this was the moment that he quit the Olympic Games.

He walked away from the track, and into the tunnel. Some people have since commented that there was a stunned silence in the stadium - perhaps in some seats there was. But where I was sitting there was just confusion. We looked around at each other - not sure of what we'd just seen. Had Liu Xiang just walked away from the Olympic Games? On the track, the runners took their marks again and they ran the race without him. At this point, it finally became clear to those of us sitting in the crowd - China's Olympics was going ahead without its star attraction.

Boys playing basketball in front of advert of Liu XiangIt's hard to overstate how important Liu Xiang has been to this Olympic Games. In some ways, China has built its entire Olympics around Liu Xiang - and the hope that he would defend the Olympic title he won in Athens. You can barely go more than a few metres in Beijing without seeing a poster of Liu - advertising a selection of ice creams, soft drinks, credit cars, sports shoes, and fast cars. Those adverts may now have to be speedily re-done.

Why was Liu Xiang so important? He was the first Asian man ever to win a gold medal in an Olympic track event (in Athens 2004). "His achievement made us feel that we could achieve anything ourselves as well," said one woman. So, Liu Xiang's expected gold medal in Beijing was about Chinese national confidence - it was about China feeling that it could do anything that any other country could do.

Many people we've spoken to here in Beijing feel deeply sorry for him - and also slightly guilty that so much pressure was placed on one man.

"My heart aches," one small boy said to me. "I'm so sad."

Others are less sympathetic. This is what one person wrote on an internet chatroom: "As a Chinese athlete, if you know you're hurt, you shouldn't join the game, if you joined the game, you shouldn't give up so easily, Liu Xiang you failed us all."

What do you think?

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