Liu Xiang – To fly or not to fly

chinese pressure Beijing 2008

Date: 21/08/2008
Location: Beijing National Stadium, the “Birdsnest”, Beijing 2008
Final 110m hurdles

As in every Games we visit since 2004, we always check out the most iconic events. With the Beijing Olympics in 2008 it was immediately clear. You could not miss it; there was one star on all billboards and in all headlines. Liu Xiang. A modest athlete from Shanghai making his second Olympic appearance.

So, when we got the confirmation from the ticket ballot that we had 2 tickets for the finals of the 110-meter hurdles, we were over the moon. We could hear already the 90.000 Chinese fans going crazy together with the 300 million Chinese fans in front of their television.

Apparently more then 10 million fans applied for tickets for this event. As with many Olympic dreams that are carefully planned, not all come true.

So, what’s the big news? Well, this shattered dream left the whole of China in tears at the Beijing Olympics. Here’s why.

Liu Xiang, whose name means To Fly (!) was born and raised in Shanghai. He applied to track & field training in his early days. He had a talent for the high jump. But when he grew up, he found that his length would not be sufficient to reach the top, so he searched for another event in track & field. He chose one of the most complex and technical of all, the hurdles. His incredible talent soon came to the surface. Chinese champion at the age of 16. World Youth record holder at 18. And a bronze medal at the World Championships at the age of just 20.

birdsnest chinese fan

To Fly

So, when he set out to his first Olympic appearance, in Athens 2004, the nation was looking with special interest at the final. Especially since he strolled through the heats. But no one expected a gold medal.

The exaltation was huge in China. You must understand this. China, already present at the top in many Olympic sports, never won a gold medal in athletics for the men. Never. Only one bronze medal in the high jump, back in 1994!

The success of Liu only became bigger when he beat the World record in 2006. He went on to become world champion in 2007 achieving the unique ‘triple crown’, world record, world champion, Olympic champion.

So, arriving to the 2008 Beijing Olympics it was clear that Liu Xiang was the nr 1 in China’s hopes. He was everywhere; on every billboard, in every commercial and in all tv programs leading up to Beijing. The big brands: Coca Cola, Nike, BMW, all took their stake in getting all eyes fixed on Liu Xiang. The pressure cannot be imagined, more then 1 billion people expecting nothing else then another gold medal.

110 hurdles Beijing 2008

Or not to Fly

We were in the Birdsnest on the day of the final. But not in the same atmosphere as expected.

Confirming the many rumours of an injury for Liu, he had to pull out of the series earlier that week. The drama was complete. He did not jump over the first hurdle. He must have been the loneliest person on the whole planet. The crowds were left in stunned silence, confusion and tears. As did the complete Chinese Republic; China’s greatest hope had been dashed.

China continued in their home Games to reach for the nr 1 position in the medal table. But many would have giving those back to replace the tears of Liu Xiang.

New hopes shattered

Xiang struggled after Beijing with injuries but came back to his levels in the year leading up to the next Olympics in London 2012. He equalled the World record (12,87) and he also won his first Diamond League again after Beijing 2008.

So again, all Chinese eyes were set on him for the Games in London. Shakespeare could not have done a more bitter tale then that of Liu Xiang. Again. He had to pull out in the series. Falling of the first hurdle and limping back. In a wheelchair into the catacombs.

Liu finally retired in 2015, not having run a single event after his withdrawal in London. “The will is still there, but the foot says no again and again”. He broke in tears saying goodbye to his hometown fans in Shanghai stating that not all dreams come true. “But the journey itself can be a spiritual and rewarding one”.

I still remember the disbelief of the complete Chinese crowd in the Birdsnest that evening of the finals of the 110m. It should have been thé moment of the Beijing Games.

Who won that final? I can’t remember.

The guy whose name was To Fly did not.


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