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IN CHINA, the Olympic Games waited for one man. That one man waited four years for one moment. For nine days the host nation harvested gold medals, some in events so obscure that Americans might scarcely call them sports. Yet it was all a form of prelude to the one race that would help define China's athletic self-esteem.
Liu Xiang won a gold medal in the 110-meter hurdles at the 2004 Olympics in Athens—China's first men's gold medal in track and field, the international centerpiece of the Games—in an explosive sprint event traditionally dominated by runners from Western nations. From that night forward Liu was elevated to a place in Chinese popular culture where few athletes in any nation have gone. He is a fixture on billboards and television, his androgynous face staring out at more than a billion souls, they beseeching him in return to win a gold medal at home. In a May interview Liu was asked if in his home country he could simply go out and quietly get a coffee without being surrounded by fans. He said, "This is not possible." For these games he was China's Michael Phelps, LeBron James and Tyson Gay rolled into a single form.
In the end he would not even race. On Monday morning, while a frenzied Bird's Nest crowd shouted encouragement—Liu Xiang, jia you [add fuel]!—Liu scratched himself from the first of four rounds of his specialty because of an injured right heel. After pushing from the blocks during a false start, Liu stopped and grimaced, yanked the adhesive lane numbers from his legs and walked down a darkened tunnel. The Niao Chao fell into a shocked silence. "When Liu Xiang got to the warmup area, he was trying to endure; he was putting it out there for all he was worth," said Liu's coach, Sun Haiping, who wept openly during a press conference after Liu's withdrawal. "He couldn't put any weight on his heel."
National team coach Feng Shuyong said that the hamstring injury that Liu suffered while training in the U.S. for the May 31 Reebok Classic (from which he withdrew) had healed, but the heel problems that had followed Liu for seven years had resurfaced two days before his heat and flared up on Monday. "When he entered the call room," said Feng, "he was telling himself that he had to go through with the race. He said he would only have made the decision to drop out as a last resort."
Chinese fans began leaving the Bird's Nest almost as soon as Liu left the track. "We were all looking forward to Liu Xiang winning the gold at the Olympics," said Zheng Huifang, a woman in her 60s who lives near the stadium. "It is the biggest letdown of the Olympics, but there is nothing we can do because it was an injury." Zhu Menghia, 43, a government worker visiting the Olympic Green on the day of Liu's race, said, "We really supported Liu Xiang. I thought he was very likely to win the gold. It's a big letdown."
It is also Olympic reality, which pays no heed to dreams, whether they are those of a nation or a single athlete. "What can you say? It's bad luck," says two-time Olympic 10,000-meter gold medalist Haile Gebrselassie of Ethiopia. In the preliminary heat just before Liu's, the U.S.'s Terrence Trammell, the silver medalist in the last two Olympics, cleared just one hurdle before veering off the track, out with a left hamstring injury.
TRAMMELL'S COLLAPSE extended a weak start for the U.S. team, which failed to win a gold medal in the first three days of competition. However, on Monday night the drought ended in a most unlikely manner, with Stephanie Brown Trafton's victory in the women's discus. It was the first gold by a U.S. woman in the event since Lillian Copeland's in 1932 and was made possible in part by the absence of world leader Darya Pishchalnikova of Russia, who was nailed in a doping sting eight days before the Games opened.
Soon after Brown Trafton's win, pole vaulter Jenn Stuczynski (who cleared 15'9") took a silver medal behind the incomparable Yelena Isinbayeva of Russia. The medal was the first for Stuczynski, a former college basketball player who had been vaulting for only a few months when Isinbayeva won the gold in Athens four years ago. Isinbayeva spent Monday evening straddling the line between showmanship and arrogance, covering her head and body in a tent of quilts and blankets as other women vaulted, ignoring their work while drawing attention to herself. But in the end she owned the Bird's Nest, breaking her own world record with a vault of 16'7" long after the other events had finished. "I love to be alone at the top and have the stadium all to myself," said Isinbayeva. "It's so cool."
Less than an hour after Stuczynski secured her silver, Angelo Taylor ran a career-best 47.25 to win the 400-meter hurdles, leading Kerron Clement and Bershawn Jackson across the line in a U.S. sweep, America's fifth alltime in this event but first since 1960. It was Taylor's second gold in the event, eight years after he captured an improbable Olympic title from lane 1 in Sydney. In the interim he experienced deep troughs: Hip and shin injuries dogged him through 2004, and he was eliminated in the Athens semifinals. His contract with Nike was not renewed after those Games. And in January 2006 he pleaded guilty to contributing to the delinquency of two 15-year-old girls and was sentenced to three years' probation and fined $2,500. (Taylor, now 29, had been charged with molesting one of the girls and was found naked in a car with the other.)
Taylor began rebuilding his life in the winter of 2006 in Atlanta with Innocent Egbunike, a former Nigeria Olympian who is now a coach. Taylor got a job as an electrician's apprentice and worked from 5 a.m. until 2:30 p.m. before going to practice. "I told him from this day on, you become the best example that you can," Egbunike said after Taylor's gold. "Many days I would come to practice and he would be asleep in his car after working all day."