China suffered a huge setback Monday to its hopes of winning gold on the track when superstar Liu Xiang sensationally pulled out of the 110m hurdles, taking the gloss off the hosts' best Olympics ever.

The country's 1.3 billion people had been banking on Liu to shine, but he has been troubled by a foot tendon injury and was clearly in pain when he lined up for his race and pulled up before the first hurdle in a false start.

The dejected star, one of the faces of the Beijing Olympics along with basketballer Yao Ming, limped down the tunnel of the Bird's Nest stadium to a stunned silence from the 91,000 watching fans.Liu, the defending champion, has been absent from international competition for most of the year and his coach Sun Haiping said the hurdler has been suffering from the Achilles' heel injury for six to seven years.

"It just got worse," Sun said at a hastily arranged press conference in which he broke down in tears."His right heel injury has been a problem since six years ago, even before the Athens Olympics.

"On August 16, we arrived at the Olympic village, medical experts analyzed Liu's injury and specified there was a problem on Liu's Achilles's tendon."The Chinese team's head coach Feng Shuyong added: "I think the Chinese people will understand the situation and will encourage him to come back to the track and perform well.

"Seldom could there have been more pressure and expectation placed on an athlete than there has been on Liu since he confirmed his class in winning the title in Athens four years ago.The 25-year-old looked a certainty to defend his title successfully until Cuban Dayron Robles threw down the gauntlet this season.

While Liu has not been seen on the European circuit, 21-year-old Robles has torn it up with some devastating performances.He capped it by breaking Liu's world record in a stunning hurdling display in the Czech Republic, timing 12.87 seconds in June.

He clocked 13.39 seconds in his heat Monday to be hot favourite for gold.The sudden withdrawal of Liu, whose face can be seen on billboards and in TV ads pushing everything from local milk to big Western brands, shocked fans, who count him as a symbol of China's burgeoning success in the world.

"I can't believe this has happened. He is my hero," said Sun Yejun, 30, a Volkgswagon quality control engineer in Beijing as she wiped her eyes with a handkerchief."I came here especially to see him. I am devastated.

I just bought one ticket. The Olympics is over for me as well as Liu Xiang."It took the shine off China revelling in its best Olympic gold medal achievement.The host country has bettered the 32 gold it won in Athens and is on its way to becoming only the third country since World War II -- after the United States and the Soviet Union -- to top the end-of-Games medal tableSo far it has 39 gold to the United States' 20, but track and field is traditionally an American domain and the balance of power is expected to shift.Cui Dalin, deputy chef de mission of the Chinese delegation, admits the medals will likely start drying up.

"With events like track and field, China's pace in winning gold medals will slow down," he said.The country's gymnasts continued their dominance.The have already had their best Olympics since Los Angeles in 1984 where they won four gold, having now won eight.He Kexin won the women's uneven bars Monday, with Nastia Liukin of the United States taking silver even though she scored the same mark as her rival.In the men's rings competition, Chen Yibing won gold with compatriot Yang Wei making it a one-two finish for the home nation.He Wenna capped the day by taking the women's trampoline title.Elsewhere, China's men's table tennis team -- Ma Lin, Wang Hao, Wang Liqin -- beat European powerhouse Germany in the team final.


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