- Chinese media claim CCTV officials knew hurdler Liu Xiang was injured before his Olympic race
- Liu fell seconds into the race, hopped to the final hurdle, then left the track in a wheelchair
- Local reports suggest the state-run broadcaster knew of Liu's injury and scripted anchors' reaction
- Liu insists he felt healthy before his Olympic race but lost his balance at the first hurdle
A bold headline on the front page of a Chinese newspaper Thursday screamed: "Liu Xiang knew, CCTV knew and leaders knew --only spectators foolishly waited to witness moment of miracle."
The headline in the Oriental Guardian -- a local newspaper based in the eastern city of Nanjing -- referred to a star athlete who had caught the Chinese public's imagination after injuring himself at the recent Olympic Games.
Liu Xiang, a world champion in the men's 110-meter hurdles and one of the country's most famous sportsmen, pulled his Achilles tendon while taking off and crashed into the first hurdle during his first-round heat in London's Olympic stadium. He then hopped the full stretch on his left foot, pausing to kiss the final hurdle, before leaving the track in a wheelchair.
The high-profile withdrawal became a glaring moment of disappointment in an otherwise glorious run for China, which won 88 medals in London, trailing only the United States in the final medal table. Hosts and reporters at state-run China Central Television (CCTV), which carried the event live, turned noticeably emotional as Liu fell. Yang Jian, lead anchor for the hurdles race, sounded shaken and at times choked up during the coverage.
"This is the reality -- this is the cruelty of competitive sports," Yang was heard saying on air. "Liu Xiang is like a soldier -- when he realized he couldn't reach the finish line, he rose above himself."
Then came the claims that prompted critics to blast CCTV's coverage of the saga.
Local media reported that, in a largely self-congratulatory meeting Wednesday reviewing its Olympics coverage, CCTV officials revealed they were aware of Liu's "serious injury" before the race and approved four scripts for the anchors -- including the so-called "choked up" option apparently used on air. The story was widely reported by news outlets across China and featured prominently on major web portals through most of Thursday.
CCTV has no public relations department to respond to questions about its coverage, but sources at CCTV confirmed to CNN that an Olympic coverage meeting did take place. However, they declined to comment on what was discussed -- and asked that their names not be used -- because of the sensitive nature of the matter. By Thursday night, Chinese news articles on the meeting mostly disappeared online and some links to the original stories on social media sites appeared dead.
Meanwhile CCTV broke its silence late Thursday night, reporting that Liu had stitches from his August 9 ankle surgery in London removed in Shanghai earlier that day. The 29-year-old hurdler defended his actions at the Olympics, insisting he felt healthy before the starting pistol fired.
"When I lost my balance at the first hurdle, I felt my foot was whipped by someone and then I fell," he recalled. "I didn't know what was going on and just felt a lot of pain. I was sitting on the ground in pain and felt totally blank."
"When a stadium worker pushed out a wheelchair, I saw it and didn't want to sit in it," he added. "So I hopped to the finish line. When I passed the final hurdle, this thought just popped up in my mind and I wanted to kiss that hurdle."
Despite government censors' best effort to keep Liu's story positive after the event, many people had been questioning the reasons behind Liu's decision to participate if, indeed, the severity of his injury was known.
On Sina Weibo, China's equivalent of Twitter, users posted more than 38 million messages on the subject by Thursday afternoon. Most recent posts appeared critical of Liu -- "feeling cheated" was among the most commonly cited reactions.
On Netease, a major web portal, users seemed to be equally unforgiving. Many demanded an apology from Liu, while others called CCTV shameless for "co-starring with him in a world-class farce." One of the most reposted comments read: "A group of con men spend taxpayers' money and cheat on everyone's feelings so that they can make more money for themselves - what kind of world is this?"
Like all other Chinese athletes, Liu is the product of a government-sponsored sports system that feeds, houses and trains athletes. Unlike most others, however, he has been a national hero for years and made millions of dollars in endorsements.
The Shanghai native shot to international stardom when he won in the 110-meter hurdles race at the 2004 Summer Olympics. At 12.91 seconds, Liu's performance in Athens is the fastest Olympic record to date and his victory secured China its first gold medal in men's track and field.
His income from endorsements surged after the Athens Games, jumping from a mere $250,000 in 2004 to more than $25 million in 2008, second only to basketball star Yao Ming, according to Forbes magazine.
Although his fortune suffered a sharp decline after he pulled out of the 2008 Beijing Olympics due to injury, Liu remains one of the top earners among Chinese athletes, with his near-ubiquitous image advertising products ranging from Nike shoes and BMW cars to imported nutrition supplements and local milk.
Chinese sports officials have vehemently denied the claim that their vested interest in Liu's commercial success -- the sports authority is entitled to a considerable cut from an athlete's endorsements income -- played a role in his decision to compete at the Olympics despite his injury.
"Our priority is to protect athletes, if we could have predicted he would be injured, no one would have let Liu run," Feng Shuyong, China's athletics team leader at the London Games, told the state-run Xinhua News Agency when the controversy first erupted.
Not all supporters have abandoned Liu, though. Echoing online sentiment that Liu is a victim of the system, some analysts say the hurdler should not be blamed.
"Liu Xiang's team and the Chinese sports authority should take the blame," said Guan Jun, a columnist for the Chinese edition of Sports Illustrated. "They operate with taxpayers' money -- so they have the responsibility to clarify to the public and explain why they concealed the truth."