Former world-record holder and 2004 champion Liu Xiang of China stumbled into the first hurdle and fell to the track in his opening heat Tuesday, his second consecutive first-round exit in the Olympic 110-meter hurdles.
Four years ago in Beijing, his Olympics ended after two full strides, when he withdrew from his preliminary heat with right foot and hamstring injuries, disappointing his country of more than 1 billion people.
This time, Liu made it only as far as the initial hurdle, knocking it down. He clutched his lower right leg and stayed down for a few moments. He eventually rose and hopped on his left foot along the outside of the race route.
When he got to the spot of the 10th and final hurdle, he hobbled over to kiss it, then continued hopping until he got to the finish line.
Another hurdler, Balazs Baji of Hungary, went over and raised Liu's hand in the air, as if to signify he was the winner. Then other competitors went over to offer handshakes of condolences. Eventually, Liu got into a wheelchair and was taken away from the track.
At the 2004 Athens Games, Liu became the first man from China to win an Olympic gold medal in track and field. He backed that up with the 2007 world title, only increasing expectations for another triumph on home soil at Beijing in 2008, one of the main story lines in the lead-up to those Olympics.
He was — and, indeed, still is — China's only track and field superstar. But he's been more than that, too: One of China's most recognizable faces, endorsing shoes and cars and all manner of other products. But in front of a packed Bird's Nest, he never even made it to the first hurdle.
His rivalry with current world-record holder and 2008 Olympic champion Dayron Robles of Cuba was supposed to be a highlight of the London track schedule. Robles advanced easily Tuesday, winning his heat in 13.33 seconds.
Though his fall was the most significant, Liu wasn't alone in what an Olympic Stadium announcer called "carnage" on the track.
The 110 hurdles started (or didn't) with a disqualification for the Madagascar runner who jumped the gun in lane three. When it did get going, the Bahamas runner took a tumbling forward roll fall and was also disqualified. The British runner failed to finish. The Trinidad and Tobago runner clattered to the line leaving behind a trail of 10 splayed hurdles. And two lanes along, the Barbados athlete also fell at the first and the Senegal athlete was later disqualified.
Among those who didn't fall? Americans Jason Richardson, Jeff Porter and Aries Merritt all advanced to the semifinals in the 110m hurdles.
Copyright Associated Press / NBC New York