You could almost hear 1.3 billion people gasp in unison this afternoon in China.
It was history repeating itself.
For two Olympics in a row, Chinese track-and-field star and 2004 Olympic gold medalist hurdler Liu Xiang failed to finish a single race to qualify past the first heat of the 110-meter hurdles. This time in London, Liu crashed out in what might be his last chance at Olympic gold.
Mere seconds after the gun sounded, Liu’s foot caught the first hurdle and he took a harrowing fall. As he sat on the track wincing in pain, it recalled the moment a nation’s heart broke back in Beijing during the 2008 Games.
Liu was the Chinese face of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. He was the favorite to win the 110-meter hurdles and the country’s best chance at winning a track and field gold on home turf. After all, Liu had become a national hero after his 2004 Olympic performance, winning China’s first ever gold in men’s track and field.
Under the roar of the Bird’s Nest stadium, the country was left devastated when Liu suddenly pulled out of the first heat on the starting blocks. He cited injury to his Achilles tendon. As Liu left the field in 2008, Chinese spectators left the stadium in droves and a Chinese commentator cried on the air. Liu had surgery on his right foot after those Games and although plagued by injuries, he soon returned to competing.
His Chinese fans still held out hope; Liu could still race in London. He took silver earlier this year at the World Indoor Championships. This was supposed to be his comeback.
But it wasn’t meant to be.
Chinese sports commentators were struck speechless watching the live broadcast. Their on-air silence was interrupted by audible sobs. They were clearly unable to find the words to describe the sight of their national sports icon once again fallen and wincing in pain.
Online China’s active micro-blogs lit up. Sina Weibo, China’s answer to Twitter, registered 20 million posts within five minutes of the accident.
Users bemoaned Liu’s performance, many have begun calling him “Liu Shuai Shuai” (translated as Liu Fell Fell), but in general they rallied behind the hurdler.
“What a cruel way to end 12 years, eight months, and seven days of hard work,” wrote a user under the name Yingning Lanna. “In our hearts, you are still the best!”
Some users are even optimistic that his injury might finally free him from the control of the government-influenced and -funded Chinese sports system.
Another micro-blogger with the username Mopi wrote, “Everyone was hoping for the best for Liu Xiang. The results are saddening — I really hope the outside world isn’t too critical.”
The London crowd did cheer as Liu lifted himself up and determinedly hobbled toward the finish line, pausing to kiss the final hurdle before his fellow hurdlers from various countries sat him down in a wheelchair. He probably knew that at the age of 29, this could very well be his last time on an Olympic track.
As Liu was wheeled out of Olympic Stadium, he looked visibly crestfallen. This was likely not the goodbye he was hoping for.
ABC News’ Beijing Bureau’s Audrey Wozniak contributed to this report.