When defending Olympic hurdles champion and Chinese national hero Liu Xiang stepped onto the track at the Beijing National Stadium this morning, he was greeted by a deafening roar for what Chinese have called the "biggest competition of the year." Within seconds, however, his dream -- and that of his country -- was dashed.
The celebrity track star, 25, finished a pain-ridden warmup this morning before settling into the starting blocks for the opening qualifying heat of the men's 110-meter hurdles event. But after a few painful opening steps, Liu was finished. He hobbled along, wincing after a false start by another racer. As the other hurdlers walked back to the starting line for the restart, Liu tore off his racing number and limped off the track.
"Today's result is not perfect for all of us, especially for Liu Xiang," said Feng Shuyong, head coach of the Chinese athletics team.
"Liu was very, very upset about the withdrawal," Feng said. And it seemed as if his Chinese fans felt exactly the same.
Liu's appearance today -- and presumably Thursday's finals -- was one of the most anticipated events of these Olympics for the Chinese.
"Liu Xiang is the person who inspired the entire nation about something they never dreamed of," said Dong Jun, former long-time sports commentator for Chinese Central Television CCTV.
"Of course, this should be the most important, the heaviest medal of all. ... It is a big blow for China," Dong told ABC News.
In 2004, Liu crossed the finish line first in Athens, becoming the first Chinese man to win an Olympic gold in track and field. He followed his historic Olympic victory by breaking the world record for the first time and adding a world championship to his name.
But this season has been a tough one for Liu and the Chinese. His world record was broken by Cuban Dayron Robles, and a nagging hamstring injury kept him out of most of this year's international circuit, including two races earlier this summer. Since May 23, Liu has kept himself almost entirely out of public view.
So when Liu stepped into lane 2 this morning, his fans were well aware of the challenges he would have to overcome to win his second Olympic gold. But they were also thrilled to finally see their track star back in the starting blocks.
At the National Stadium, also known as the Bird's Nest, fans were shocked and visibly upset. Yang Quanjun shook his head and told ABC News, "I feel regretful. Very regretful. We came here for him."
"When I saw him walking away, I feel so sad," fan Wei Haibin said. "He is our idol. He is the best in China's track and field."
Chen Derong, an elementary school student who watched Liu attempt his heat, had come to the Bird's Nest specifically to see his hero race his way to another Olympic gold medal.
"I saw him falling down. I thought it's just a small problem with his leg," Chen said. "He can still compete. But he still quit in the end."
The disappointment also seeped out of the stadium and into the surrounding streets and restaurants. At a popular 24-hour restaurant near the Lama Temple, servers stopped taking orders and stared at the television in utter disbelief as Liu's face creased with pain. Customers froze with chopsticks halfway to their mouths as they watched him limp off the track.
Wrapped in a bright red Chinese flag outside the Bird's Nest, another fan's anger eclipsed his disappointment.