Monday, August 18, 2008

On Liu Xiang's pull-out...why didn't he just walk towards the finish line?

The most important and obvious news today is that Liu Xiang has pulled out of 110m hurdles, meaning that the most anticipated moment in this Beijing Olympics -- a showdown between the national hero and Dayron Robles of Cuba -- will not transpire.

Liu Xiang did and will continue to inspire millions of young athletes in China, and many around the world. His performance in Athens was a watershed moment in Asian sports history, not least because he delivered on his promise that Asians can beat the best sprinters in the world.

Liu Xiang will always have his place in Chinese sports history, but by comparison, today's episode makes Li Ning's (李寧) 1988 appearance even more special and endearing. By the time the Seoul Games began, Li was way past his prime. Li sustained an ankle injury but he endured Seoul because China gymnastics had no up-and-comers (接班人) at that time. He may have fallen, but he got up, finished his routines, and smiled for the whole world to see. He wasn't made any less of a champion by falling, only more so because he got back up, because he smiled with dignity. In that respect, Li Ning is the true hero of the people (人民英雄). Nobody needs to finish first all the time; it is the spirit that matters.

I believe in what Liu Xiang's coach, Sun Haiping, said when he announced on TV that Liu Xiang's injury was serious. But I also wonder, if it were all that serious, why couldn't Liu just skip the race, return to the stadium in street clothing and address the crowd regarding his health condition? If Liu felt that he was fit enough to be present at the lanes, couldn't he have at least walked to the finish line? I wish he did. Because that would have been a class act, just to cross the finish line even knowing that he had no hopes of winning. I wish he did, because tomorrow's newspapers would have been adorned with this image: Liu Xiang crossing the finish line, despite having limped through the distance, with two fists in mid air, full showing that he would refuse to quit. That would have been the Olympic spirit. That would have been THE moment for the Games. That would have been the image that Li Ning conveyed to us back in 1988. Now, tomorrow's newspapers would likely be plastered with Sun Haiping's tear-soaked face and the dreadful image of Liu walking into the darkness of the stadium interior. No matter how anyone spun it, today's episode was still a quitter's act. Liu Xiang may still come back (though, by my judgment only, not likely), but his act today would have left an indelible mark in the psyche of Chinese people -- the same kind of mark that, if you shall allow me, Li Ning could have left if he had fallen from the rings and, neither smiling nor bowing out with grace, walked straight to the changing room amidst spectators' bewilderment and confusion.

I wish Liu Xiang could have walked to the finish line. He would not have delivered a winning time, but he would have delivered a lot more.