Chinese Internet discussion forums are alive with debate over whether or not China’s 110-meter hurdles Olympic superstar Liu Xiang is injured. The debates were sparked following suggestions that Liu pulled out of his preliminary race to keep his sponsors happy and that his sudden exit was carefully orchestrated from behind the scenes.
Several conflicting stories have filled state-run Mainland newspapers and online forums about Liu’s withdraw from the race, just moments before it began.
Liu’s coach, Sun Haiping, told South Cities News on August 19 that Xiang quit, “because of his injury … [which he has had] for six or seven years.” Another article in the same edition quoted Liu as definitively stating to state-run propaganda machine Xinhua News on July 25 that his ankle was not injured.
The question buzzing around online forums is: If Liu has had this injury for six or seven years, why did he deny it just 13 days before the start of the Beijing Olympic Games?
Liu had not mentioned his injury until August 18.
Xi Jiang, a reporter for the Secret China website wrote, “On July 30, a message posted by ‘JCCG’ on a China online forum said, ‘Liu Xiang is going to quit the competition because of his injuries.’”
The message continued: “The day before yesterday, I searched the Yahoo Olympics ‘Life Service’ page, and I found someone was reselling a ticket for the 110 meter hurdles. I was so happy. I spent 1500 yuan and got the ticket! Liu Xiang, you are my idol and I am willing to pay a fortune for it.
“However, today (July 30), when I showed it off to a friend of mine, he said that he knew the inside story. Liu Xiang is going to miss the 110m hurdles and that is the reason why someone is willing to resell the ticket. He seems quite sure about it so I’m starting to feel suspicious about the whole thing.”
Another Chinese blogger, claiming to be an insider from Nike, wrote on a Yahoo message board that 2004 Athens gold medalist, Liu Xiang, has been involved in major promotional campaigns for large corporations like Nike, VISA, Coca Cola, Anli, and has endorsed more than 14 products.
The blogger claimed that before the Olympics, Nike cooked up a plan to prevent the corporation from losing consumers and also wanted to save Liu Xiang’s reputation. Soon after, Liu Xiang would back out of the 110m hurdle event due to injury.
However, Nike issued a statement of denial over the blogger's claim. Nike's statement strongly denies the Internet rumors that it forced the Chinese athletics hero to pull out of the Olympics. They also added they had asked authorities to investigate the posting.
"The posting is a malicious rumor, and has not only misled citizens, but also seriously damages the company's reputation," Nike, one of Liu's major sponsors, said in a statement emailed to AFP.
In communist China, allocation of an athlete's advertising earnings is usually divided as follows: the athlete gets 50 percent, 15 percent goes to the coach, 20 percent to hometown sports, and 15 percent to national sports. Loss of income (and loss of 'face') would potentially affect many areas.
Blogger You Li said on the Secret China web site: “On the 18th, like hundreds of millions of other Chinese sports fans, I expected to see Liu Xiang’s first race at the Beijing Olympics on TV.”
According to You, alongside footage of track and field events was footage of the athletes’ warm-up area, filmed as little as 15 minutes before the event. While other competitors were nearby, Liu Xiang suddenly walked to an iron door and started kicking it very hard, causing the noise to loudly echo throughout the hall. Nearby competitors in Liu’s heat just smiled and watched him.
“I was stunned and wondered how Liu Xiang could demonstrate such reckless behavior before the race,” commented You.
After Liu's swift exit in apparent agony, the other competitors completed the race.
Since the event, postings on online forums have been removed by Chinese Internet censors. The regime's Central Propaganda Department also issued a notice to Chinese media not to speculate over the reasons behind Liu’s withdrawal and for reports to follow the official line given in the press conference-which is that Liu is still a hero even if he did withdraw.