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.
"[Liu] made fun of us. He played a joke on the whole country. I will not care for him anymore. I am not in a mood to talk about it," the fan said as he walked away in a cloud of frustration.
Is Liu Human?
Dong, the CCTV sports commentator, believes that while disappointing, Liu's withdrawal was necessary and justified.
"It was the right decision for an athlete when he or she isn't fit for a race, especially an Olympic race," Dong said. "I believe most of the fans, while feeling very disappointed, they should understand, they should forgive him for his decision in pulling out of the Olympics."
Despite the disappointment, Dong said Chinese fans harbor a different mentality from their Western counterparts, one that stems from recent cultural and economic developments.
"When I was [a] very young fanatic about sports, I think it would mean for us to live or die. But now … young people are taking it more lightly, although still more seriously than maybe some Western viewers," Dong said.
China's Olympic Track and Field Star
Nearly 25 years ago, Chinese track and field athlete Zhu Jianhua broke the world high-jump record on three occasions. With his success came fame and the weight of a country's expectations. Fans at home fully expected Zhu to win gold at the 1984 Los Angeles games.
When Zhu won the bronze, his Chinese fans responded aggressively.
"He even got some letters threatening his life right after he failed to win the gold," Dong said. "Back then, it was the first time China competed in the Olympic games, and Chinese people didn't learn how to forgive athletes that they hoped to win the gold."
But like its economy and culture, China has come a long way since 1984, Dong said.
"They are getting prepared for such a setback, especially when the China delegation has already won 35 other gold medals," Dong told ABC News today.
Amid the somber mood at the Bird's Nest today, fans were indeed trying to understand Liu's early exit from the Games.
"Liu Xiang is like a God in Chinese people's heart," said fan Qiao Meng. "But this accident makes us realize that Liu Xiang is a human."
Qiao paused for a moment and then added, "A gold medalist is just an ordinary person. We should treat them as humans, not gods."
Stephanie Sy and Fangda Wan contributed to this story.