LONDON -- Liu Xiang slowly, awkwardly made his way alongside the track he was supposed to be racing on Tuesday, forced instead to hop on his good leg while straining to keep his injured one elevated.
Eight years ago, he won the 110-meter hurdles at the Athens Games -- tying the world record of 12.91 seconds, giving China its first Olympic gold medal in men's track and field, and almost instantly becoming one of the most famous and popular people in a nation of more than 1 billion.
The numbers since then for Liu? Two Olympics, zero hurdles cleared.
Liu stumbled into the first barrier of his opening heat at London's Olympic Stadium on Tuesday, crumbled to the ground and stayed down for a few moments, clutching his lower right leg. The head of China's track team, Feng Shuyong, said Liu might have ruptured his right Achilles tendon.
It was remarkably reminiscent of what happened in front of a stunned-into-silence home crowd at the Bird's Nest in Beijing at the last Olympics in 2008, when Liu withdrew from his preliminary heat after taking all of two full strides, unable to overcome right foot and hamstring injuries.
This was supposed to be a chance to restore his reputation.
Instead, it was a near-repeat.
"I'm very sad about this outcome, but I'm also proud of him, because Liu Xiang, from 2008 to now, has worked bitterly hard to take part in these Olympic Games. He has given so much," Feng said. "In the struggle with his injury, he has overcome one difficulty after another and got back to a pretty good level, but at the crucial juncture of the Olympic Games, he got injured again."
"For him to push himself and come back ... and for this to happen -- it's really sad for any athlete," Usain Bolt said after slowing to a jog and still easily winning his 200-meter qualifying heat Tuesday.
Back in China, Central Television commentator Yang Jian cried out and began to choke up when Liu fell during the live broadcast.
Fans posted crying emoticon faces on the microblogging site Sina Weibo, where the topic was trending, and while sympathy was the overriding sentiment, some in China also questioned whether Liu faked his fall to avoid the embarrassment of making it to the final but failing to win the gold medal. There even were those who called for boycotting products he's endorsed.
He was -- and, indeed, still is -- China's only track and field superstar, a man whose legs were insured for more than $10 million. But he's been more than that, too: One of China's most recognizable faces, endorsing shoes and cars and credit cards and all manner of other products.
On Tuesday, Feng was asked whether the 29-year-old mentioned retirement.
"It is not the time to talk about that," came the reply.
Liu did not speak to reporters, whisked away from the stadium in a car.
He had picked himself up off the track after falling and tried to head to the nearest exit. But he was directed back to the race area, so he struggled to cover the length of backstretch the only way he could, using his left leg.
When Liu got to where the 10th and final hurdle stood, he went over to it, leaned forward and kissed the piece of equipment. After finally making it across the finish line on that left leg, long after the race was over, he was greeted by another hurdler, Balazs Baji of Hungary, who went over and raised Liu's hand in the air, as if to signify he was the winner.
"I respect him. I like him," said Baji, fifth in their heat. "It must be really bad for him. I'm really sorry. I didn't say anything. I just couldn't say anything."
Other competitors went over to offer handshakes of condolences, before Britain's Andrew Turner and Spain's Jackson Quinonez helped Liu into a waiting wheelchair so he could be taken away from the track.
"I wouldn't wish that on my worst enemy," said Turner, who won their heat in 13.42 seconds. "I rate him as one of the best hurdlers we've had in the world ever. I don't like to see that kind of thing."
Liu's 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.
But what will be remembered, of course, was Liu's exit.
"It was just terrible for that to happen to one of the best hurdlers of all time. It was just a tragedy. I hope he's OK," said U.S. hurdler Aries Merritt, who won his heat in 13.07 seconds, the best qualifying time.
"In the hurdles, if you hit a hurdle, to recover is almost impossible. Everyone here is so great -- this is the Olympic Games. Everyone here is here to compete. It's just a shame that it had to happen to Liu. I was looking forward to competing against him."