It is difficult to know what to make of Liu Xiang’s recurring problems at the biggest event for both his career and his country. If pulling out of the 2008 Beijing Olympics whilst on the precipice of starting his first-round heat was not abrupt and mystifying enough, his decision this time to move his training base to Germany from London – the city in which he had to compete – because it was too “wet and cold” would have only further grown suspicions that there was something phony or spurious around the cult of Liu. It was not too long after pondering the complete absence of logic and whiff of panic in his sudden decision to move camp to Germany that I heard he had pulled out of the hurdles yet again after crashing into the first barrier, citing a repeat of the injury suffered in Beijing four years ago and limping to add a kiss to the last hurdle in his lane for good measure.
To pull out of the Olympic hurdles in the first heat, and in almost exactly the same fashion twice in eight years will arouse the suspicions of anyone with enough common sense not to believe in such unlikely coincidences. Liu would have been attended to by the best trainers and doctors China has to offer, and it is inconceivable that they would not have used the intervening four years to ensure that he was able to make his one date with destiny. Although his true health before the event may have been concealed in the wish not to disappoint people, the general impression given by his staff is that they were as surprised by the sudden reoccurrence of his Achilles injury as we were . That is hard to believe. Seasoned sports watchers might also add that an athlete’s instinctive reaction to having his world and lifelong ambition come crashing down upon him in the way Liu did on Tuesday would have been to burst out into tears at the disappointment. Instead, Liu remained admirably controlled enough to act out a photogenic moment that will be replayed time and again despite possibly having very little to do with sport, and everything to do with a prima donna instinct honed by a decade of adoration in his native China.
Yet, it is impossible to dismiss Liu as a complete fraud who has relied on lies and PR to build his image as a super-athlete. He gave the people of China good reason to love him by winning gold in the 2004 Olympics as a prodigious 21 year-old, and setting a world record in the event a little later. It may be that he was afraid to tar that reputation by failing to live up to expectations either in China or London. Whatever has gone on behind the scenes (and despite the recent announcement that he is undergoing surgery on his Achilles tendon, there are still legitimate questions that might never be answered), should he make it to Rio 2016, I would advise the Chinese people to ignore Liu even during his first-round heat. They may then be surprised to find that their champion, miffed at being slighted, would have raced through his heat with a clean bill of health and given them a contest in the final full of the sort of athletic integrity his recent no-shows have – fairly or unfairly – called into question.