China: Hurdler Liu Xiang's Olympic Failure Provokes Fierce Debate

This post is part of our special coverage London 2012 Olympics.

No sports star has triggered a more heated discussion in China this Olympics than hurdler Liu Xiang. The former world-record holder of the 110-meter hurdles and 2004 Olympic champion in the same event, dropped out of the London Olympic Games without clearing a single hurdle in the race.

Achilles injury

As the first Chinese man to win an Olympic gold medal in track, Liu instantly became the hero of the entire nation after the 2004 Athens Olympics, as well as a recognizable face in various commercials. In a field that is traditionally dominated by sprinters from North America and Europe, the Chinese had finally made their voice heard.

However, after making a splash in 2004, Liu never satisfied Chinese aspirations to win an Olympic gold medal again in track and field. At the 2008 Beijing Olympics Liu withdrew from his preliminary heat with Achilles tendon injuries and disappointed a billion Chinese fans.

The 2012 London Olympics for many was supposed to be his time for redemption, yet on Tuesday 7 August, he fell out of the opening heat again because of the same Achilles tendon injury.

Instead of directly exiting as he did four years ago, this time Liu hopped on one leg along the track and kissed what may be the final hurdle of his Olympic career before being helped into a wheelchair. Below is a YouTube video of Liu Xiang's Olympic game, uploaded by lokjoe2011:

Chinese netizens’ reactions

The incident immediately sparked fierce discussions on Sina Weibo, a major social media platform in China. Some firmly believed Liu was playacting, referring to the scene when Liu crossed back to give the final hurdle a kiss. A news director from Hong Kong wrote in her Weibo [zh] (post since deleted):

@酱缸外的秦枫 四年,一运动员,男性,上海人,成熟了:08年苦肉加悲情,直接退赛了,今年依旧苦肉计,但知道演场戏!

@酱缸外的秦枫 Four years. The male athlete from Shanghai is more mature – in 2008, he just quit the game in the name of injury. Now he is also injured but he knows to act!

Others showed compassion and support for Liu Xiang. Famous blogger Li Chengpang is sympathetic towards Liu [zh]:

@李承鹏 大多数人一生没踩过塑胶跑道,全国不足五千人练跨栏,很多县城连正经田径场都没有…让刘翔承担13亿人56民族的担子,太累。这跟举国不足万人练足球要国足夺冠一个道理。金牌不是硬道理,普及才是硬道理。哪天奥运吸收麻将为比赛项目,无论裁判怎么坏、外媒怎么黑,我们一定是冠军。刘翔,生活还要继续。

@李承鹏 Most people haven’t stepped on a plastic runway in their life. Less than 5,000 people in this country practice hurdles. And some towns even have no formal track fields. So it’s unfair to let Liu Xiang undertake what 1.3 billion people wouldn't. It’s like, China has no more than 10,000 people playing football, but you want the Chinese team to win the World Cup. The gold medal is not the most important thing while the popularization of sports is. If Mahjong [a Chinese traditional game] is one of the games in the Olympics, China definitely will win the gold medal no matter how unfair the referees treat us. Liuxiang, life is to be continued.

Some blamed Liu’s failure for the endless commercials, media interviews and political positions that may have consumed his energy:

@师北宸 刘翔是拿你我缴税的钱训练;他们拿钱的时候没有征得我们的同意,也没有公开数额;刘翔是全国政协委员。调侃他,批评他,在你们为他“心疼落泪”的时候冷静指出它,还有比这更负责的表现么。

@师北宸 [zh] [original post deleted] It’s we taxpayers that funded Liu’s training. They took the money without our permission or announcing the amount. Liu is also a member of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference. We tease him, criticize him, and point the problems out when you feel sorry and cry for him. Are there any reactions more responsible than these?

In fact, many netizens hold the view that Liu should assume responsibility for his performance since he received all training free from the taxpayer. On Tianya BBS, netizens also expressed their dismay. For example, 晓枫残月1984 [zh] said:


@晓枫残月1984 No one could dish the dirt on Liu if he had not taken a penny from the people. But all the money he used is from the taxpayer. Only the money for his food could support a year’s lunch for 1,000 children in rural China. Taxpayers have the right to criticize Liu’s performance.

Some pointed out that under the China’s “Juguo tizhi”- literally the ‘whole-nation’ sports system – athletes have been pushed too far in pursuit of gold medals.

@陆天明体育总局的领导你们在干什么?让大家心目中的英雄最后以这样的状态结束运动生命,你们到底怎么想的?我想全国人民一定不会轻饶了你们在这件事上的责任。必须追究这些当官的责任!!把一个运动员使到这个份上,让他出这种丑,举世皆无。残忍之极!!刘翔,你太悲哀了!!! 在我们的体制下,运动员只是个棋子!! 我只希望在再被各种各样的身外之力量绑架,真正发挥自己的天才,做一回自己!!

@陆天明 [zh] What are the sports authorities doing? Why let the hero end up like this? I think people will not ignore the responsibilities they should take. They should be held responsible for this! They utilized an athlete like this and embarrassed him in public. It’s so cruel! Liu Xiang, you are so pathetic! Our athletes are totally controlled by the state. I only hope that our athletes can be themselves and take advantage of their talents.

The ‘whole nation’ sports system

After Liu Xiang's withdrawal from the 2008 Beijing Games, concerns over Liu's fitness dominated the news. He had surgery in the United States and returned to the sport in 2010, after changing his technique out of the blocks. He’s been hampered by back and foot complaints in the past month, and although he has taken good medical care, the Achilles injury is still there.

On Thursday 16 August, Liu was sent to a renowned private hospital in London to receive surgery on his right Achilles tendon, which was reportedly very successful. In fact, days before Liu Xiang's crash and burn, on some blogs, people had already noted that Liu was not at his best and were expecting him to fail. Others wondered why his trainer kept hidden the truth about the problems.

The Chinese ‘whole-nation’ sports system has received sweeping criticism from western media. Bloggers linked several scandals related to Chinese Olympians to the country's blinding pursuit of medals at all costs. The young talent, once selected by the provincial or state sports teams, are shut up in closed training schools thereafter and deprived of almost all of their time to learn other life skills.

Despite the criticism, China's officials who rely on the system to produce champions that can puff up national pride, have bristled at the criticism. Xu Guoqi, a professor at the University of Hong Kong and an expert in Chinese sports, pointed out that “as long as the Chinese are not confident enough of themselves in the world, as long as the regime has a legitimacy problem, it will continue its ‘juguo tizhi’.”

This post is part of our special coverage London 2012 Olympics.

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