By Chia Han Keong
ALL eyes were transfixed on the television set inside a Beijing eating house at noon yesterday.
They were staring disbelievingly at images of a tearful coach at a media conference, telling of the withdrawal of China's iconic 110m hurdler Liu Xiang from the Olympic competition.
In what must be the biggest shock of these Games, the athlete - upon whom the whole of China rests its hopes of getting a track gold - pulled up in pain even before he had cleared his first hurdle.
The 25-year-old then tore off his number tag and limped away from the track, leaving the 91,000-strong crowd at the Bird's Nest Stadium to wonder in stunned silence.
"He's bluffing. He can't take the pressure," fumed one of the eating place's customers.
Another quipped: "Luckily we don't need him to win the gold. We are so far ahead of the Americans in the medal tally."
Yet, many others were sighing and shaking their heads over the demise of one of China's most popular athletes.
When Liu won the hurdles gold at the 2004 Athens Games, he captured the hearts of millions of Chinese around the world when he declared it a victory for the entire race.
His subsequent domination of the event, and the breaking of its world record, has become the stuff of legends among his fans.
His long-time coach Sun Haiping cried when he said that Liu's long-term Achilles heel injury flared up on Saturday, becoming worse even with three doctors treating him.
In between sobs, he said: "He couldn't stand up or sit down because of the pain. Every time he did, his leg gave way."
Added Feng Shuyong, head coach of the Chinese athletics team: "Liu Xiang would never have pulled out unless the pain was intolerable and he had no other option."
Even the usually vociferous Chinese reporters were in tears.
A CCTV reporter wept on live broadcast as she revealed that Liu had ran around 12.80sec just days before the Opening Ceremony - well below the current world record of 12.87 set by his Cuban rival, Dayron Robles.
If her account was true, then China would have lost the gold it wanted most - a gold that would show the world that it is the top sporting nation.
Instead, the nation will mourn the sporting tragedy of their favourite son, leaving Beijing in a pall of gloom over the days to come.
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