Former world record holder and winner of the Athens 2004 Olympics Liu Xiang officially announced his retirement April 7 on Sina Weibo.
“I’m afraid I have to leave behind the runway and hurdles. I am too ‘old’ and ‘sick’ to run freely. It’s time to retire and begin a new journey,” Liu wrote.
The 21-year-old Liu became a legend when he claimed the gold medal in the men’s 110-meter hurdles in a record time of 12.91 seconds. He became a national hero and household name overnight.
The young man’s success inspired the nation and his victory was seen as a symbol of China’s achievement.
By the summer of 2007, Liu was more popular than even former NBA star Yao Ming. Public expectation skyrocketed as the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games drew near.
On July 31, 2008, the Telegraph wrote that a successful Beijing Games hinged on Liu’s performance.
An injury to his right Achilles tendon kept Liu out of the race, and on August 18, 2008 Liu withdrew from the competition. His failure to participate caused an uproar in China that whipped up a patriotic frenzy.
Disaster befell Liu again at the London 2012 Olympic Games. He crashed into the first hurdle with his leading leg and fell hard to the ground.
The public rained sympathy, questions and abuse on the young hurdler. Many of the most vocal labeled him a “coward.”
“I know what people were saying about me. They thought I should get back on the track and knock over all the hurdles in a rage. I can only say they have no sense of sportsmanship,” Liu said at an interview when he won the first prize at the 2010 Asian Games.
Liu participated in 48 international hurdle competitions to win 36 golds, six silvers and three bronze medals. He only missed two meets due to injury. Liu was also the first hurdle Grand Slam winner in Asia.
On its website, the Chinese Athletics Association thanked Liu for “his great contribution to Chinese athletics development” and “ the exciting moment he brought to us.”
“Liu Xiang is the most brilliant and talented athlete I have ever met. Genius depends on diligence and commitment as much as it does natural talent. He never missed one day of training and always worked harder than the other athletes,” Liu’s coach, Sun Haiping, said.
Bai Yansong, a CCTV anchor said, “Liu’s retirement is a liberation. He is going to begin a new section of his life.”
Liu’s early retirement is yet another case of an athletic genius missing his peak potential. Injuries plague many great athletes, including Yao Ming, Li Na, Kobe Bryant and Cristiano Ronaldo.
“I was treated the same as Liu Xiang. I thought it would not happen in other countries. People adore you when you win and curse you once you fail. They don’t understand athletics and what an injury means to an athlete,” Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt said.
“At first you live for your hope, then for others’, and finally for yourself and your family,” Yao Ming said when heard of Liu’s retirement.
“I really tried my best. I have no regrets. I believe I was the best,” Liu said when asked about withdrawing from the Olympics.
As for his life ahead, Liu said he would neither enter politics nor take up coaching. He plans to return to school and serve as a commentator for the 110-meter hurdles at the Beijing World Championship this August.