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
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
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."
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.
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.)
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."