Hurdler Liu goes on TV to apologise and explain his pull-out from race
By Chua Chin Hon
BEIJING: Crestfallen Chinese hurdler Liu Xiang yesterday appeared on television to offer a personal apology to his fans and explained that his shocking withdrawal from the Olympics was due to 'unbearable' pain.
His comments, made in his first and only interview after pulling out of the heats for the 110m hurdles on Monday morning, appeared to be aimed at dousing public unhappiness over his unceremonious exit, as well as growing rumours alleging that his exit had somehow been 'staged'.
'I knew I couldn't make it when I was warming up and I couldn't even jog,' Liu, the first Chinese athlete to win an Olympic track title four years ago in Athens, said in an interview with state broadcaster CCTV.
A drop of perspiration clung to the corner of his left eyebrow as he spoke in a steady voice against a white background.
Looking a pale shadow of his usual playful, confident self, the superstar hurdler added: 'I really wanted to pull through but I couldn't. It was unbearable.
'I feel very sorry. But there's really nothing I could do.'
During the interview, Liu appeared tired and wore a plain white T-shirt rather than the flashy red that has characterised the uniform of China's athletes at the Games.
Later in the day, he also pleaded for his countrymen's understanding in a letter published on the blog of Feng Shuyong, head coach of China's athletics team.
'Please believe that the hurt and sadness in my heart cannot be less than yours,' he said. 'At the same time, please believe I am the same Liu Xiang as before.'
In the run-up to the Beijing Olympics, Liu had been under tremendous pressure to repeat his victory in Athens and deliver a major track-and-field gold on home soil.
Though there had been persistent talk that he was struggling with a hamstring injury, many Chinese fans still expected him to put up a good fight.
But Liu, in his CCTV interview, suggested that it would have been a career-ending move to try to race further.
'If I had finished the race, I would have risked my tendon,' said the 25-year-old. 'I could not describe my feeling at that moment. I never quit easily. I am not that type of person.'
His exit has sharply polarised public opinion in China, with coaches, state media, top Chinese Communist Party leadership and even martial arts star Jackie Chan throwing their support behind him.
Feng told a news conference on Monday that Liu's injury is an old one that flared up only last Saturday.
He added: 'We did not realise the problem was so serious that it would lead to a pull-out. Without knowing how serious the problem was, how could we have disclosed it?'
Liu's apology, however, did not appear to appease his online critics, with many postings still castigating him.
They also pointed fingers at Chinese sports officials and Liu's sponsors for allegedly 'staging' the hurdler's exit.
One version alleged that the officials, knowing that Liu was just not in sufficient shape to challenge Cuba's Dayron Robles, decided that it was better for him to quit than to lose in front of an expectant home crowd.
The allegations have not been backed by any concrete evidence, and appeared to be premised on the secrecy that surrounded Liu's injury.
If he was indeed that seriously injured, the doubters asked, why wasn't this made known earlier so that the spectators could be mentally prepared?
Conspiracy theories are swirling so wildly that Nike yesterday issued a strong denial of Internet rumours that it forced Liu to pull out.
An anonymous source claiming to be close to Nike posted an article on the Internet, saying the American sporting firm had forced him to do so.
'If Liu Xiang did not win (or even a medal), his value would drop enormously, and we could never make a return on Liu's huge fees,' the posting said.
A Nike spokesman said the company had responded to the rumours because the allegations were posted on a popular Chinese website.
After Liu's withdrawal, Nike was among the sponsors who came out in support, rushing an ad in the Chinese press.
Over a photo portrait of a clear-eyed, unsmiling Liu looking directly at the camera, the ad said: 'Love the glory. Love the pain. Love sport even when it breaks your heart.'
[With the previous article on sacrifices by the performers, and if Liu shares the same work ethic, he must have been in unbearable pain to pull out.]