Xiang Liu (CHN) falls in a mens 110m hurdles heat as Artur Noga (POL) and Balazs Baji (HUN) react during the London 2012 Olympic Games at Olympic Stadium. (Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports)

By Nick Mulvenney

LONDON, Aug 7 (Reuters) – China’s Liu Xiang experienced deja vu of the most agonizing kind on Tuesday when the Achilles injury that forced him out of the high hurdles heats in Beijing four years ago ended his London Olympics campaign at the same stage.

The 2004 Olympic champion at least made it to the first hurdle this time but he was unable to get his lead leg off the ground properly and clattered into the barrier before tumbling to the track, his dream of regaining the title in tatters.

China’s athletics team leader Feng Shuyong said the initial diagnosis was that Liu had ruptured his Achilles tendon, adding that the 29-year-old was not thinking about retirement.

“The injury is the same one he had in Beijing,” he told a news conference. “In the last several years he has had good medical care, but it is still there. An Achilles injury is almost impossible to recover from fully.”

China’s first male gold medalist on the Olympic track, Liu remains one of his country’s most popular sportsmen alongside former basketball player Yao Ming.

“It is really hard for him because I think he is one of the best hands down,” said Olympic sprint champion Usain Bolt.

“He has shown the world he can do great things. For him to push himself and come back last year … for this to happen, this is really sad for any athlete.”

As Feng confirmed, the Achilles injury that forced Liu to pull out at the Bird’s Nest in Beijing had never fully healed despite surgery, but he had hit a rich vein of form this year.

A blistering run of 12.97 seconds in his hometown of Shanghai was his first run under 13 seconds in five years and he backed that up with a 12.87 run in Oregon, which would have tied the Dayron Robles’s world record but for an illegal wind.

The first indication that the injury demons might have returned came when he pulled out of last month’s London Grand Prix, “a precaution” his camp said.

Feng said Liu had been simulating the two-hour turnaround between semi-finals and finals required by the Olympic schedule, which may have contributed to his early exit.

“Even in that situation, we still didn’t expect this to happen,” he added. “There is usually no indication that an Achilles is going to rupture.”

SUPREME TECHNICIAN

A supreme technician in the high hurdles, Liu barely even brushes the barriers during a race so a major error like hitting the first hurdle strongly indicated injury.

Liu’s biggest rival, Cuba’s defending Olympic champion Robles, had earlier looked comfortable as he eased into the semi-finals in 13.33 seconds despite missing most of this season with his own long-term back injury.

Aries Merritt, the form hurdler this year with three runs of 12.93 seconds, stormed through to win his heat in 13.07 seconds, the fastest first-round time at an Olympics.

The American then watched as Liu crashed out in the next heat.

“It was just terrible,” he told reporters. “That it happens to one of the best hurdlers of all time is just a tragedy.”

Merritt’s compatriot and world champion Jason Richardson, who has also run under 13 seconds this year, won his heat in 13.33.

Britain’s Andy Turner came through the chaos caused by Liu’s fall to win the heat in 13.42 seconds and then helped the limping Chinese off the track.

“The guy is probably the best hurdler in history,” Turner said. “I have so much respect for him. It was horrible seeing him limp off like that so you got to go and help him.

“He is a nice guy and I would not wish that on my worst enemy.”