China's Liu Xiang, second left, ran into the first hurdle during a men's 110-meter hurdles heat on Tuesday.
LONDON — The champion hurdler Liu Xiang, the most prominent athlete from China competing in the London Games, suffered another painful Olympic exit on Tuesday morning.
Liu Xiang of China was frustrated in the hurdles for the second consecutive Olympic Games.
Four years after Liu had to withdraw from the men’s 110-meter hurdles in the Beijing Olympics, devastating his millions of adoring fans in China, he left the competition here without clearing a single hurdle in a preliminary heat. Just as in 2008, an Achilles’ tendon injury was his undoing.
Liu, the former world-record holder in the event and the gold medal winner at the 2004 Athens Games, drove his left foot into the first hurdle and tumbled to the track, grasping his lower right leg.
He lay on the track for a time after falling, then rose and hopped toward the exit before returning to hop quickly up the track next to the hurdles on his left leg, symbolically finishing the race. When he neared the finish, he crossed back onto the track and kissed the final hurdle in his lane.
One of the leaders of China’s track and field team, Feng Shuyong, said tests at a hospital were needed to confirm the initial diagnosis that Liu had torn his right Achilles’ tendon.
“For that to happen to one of the greatest hurdlers of all time is a tragedy,” said Aries Merritt of the United States, who qualified for the semifinals in the heat before Liu’s.
Two other runners in Liu’s heat, Andrew Turner of Britain and Jackson Qui?ónez of Spain, waited for him to hobble up the track, put their arms around his shoulders and helped him to a wheelchair.
“It was horrible to see him limp off like that, so I had to go and help him,” said Turner, who won Liu’s heat.
After victories at the 2004 Olympics and at the world championships in 2007, Liu was the face of the 2008 Olympics in China. But his leg failed him then, too, with an Achilles’ tendon injury that ended his first race after three steps and put a sad twist on the host country’s efforts. He publicly apologized for his stunning withdrawal then, and his coach was brought to tears in a news conference after his race.
Liu, 29, was expected to contend for gold here with Merritt and the world-record holder Dayron Robles of Cuba, who also advanced out his preliminary heat on Tuesday.
Liu holds the second-fastest 110-meter time ever (12.88) and the second-best time in the world this year (12.97, behind the 12.93 run by Merritt). Liu ran a 12.97 in Shanghai earlier this year — his first race under 13 seconds in five years — and then ran a 12.87 at the Prefontaine Classic in Eugene, Ore., in June. That time would have tied Robles’s world record, but it was wind-aided.
Reports of an injury emerged when Liu pulled out of the London Grand Prix last month after finishing first in the semifinals, but Feng said the problem had been an ongoing issue for Liu. Merritt, who advanced by winning an earlier heat in 13.07 seconds, the fastest time ever in the first round, said he had spoken with Liu on Tuesday morning and “nothing was wrong with him going into the race.”
Feng said Liu had been trying to simulate in training the two-hour turnaround between the semifinals and final, which will be held on Thursday night, but that the narrow window had not allowed his Achilles’ to recover between races.
Feng said there had been no sign that Liu was risking a major injury by competing in London, but he was clearly struggling; his left foot hit the hurdle squarely because he was unable to generate enough spring with his right. “He couldn’t take off,” Feng said.
His inability to get his lead leg over the first hurdle, and his awkward tumble, drew gasps from the crowd. Turner, running three lanes to Liu’s right, said he was surprised halfway through the race when he realized Liu was not running alongside him.
Balazs Baji of Hungary, who was alongside Liu in Lane 3 when Liu fell, waited for him near the finish as he hobbled up the track. When they met, Baji raised Liu’s arm like a boxing champion.
“I’m so sorry for him,” Baji said.