Liu Xiang's bid to banish his Beijing Olympics nightmare ended in disaster yesterday as the Chinese athletics icon crashed out of the 110 metre hurdles when he smashed into the first obstacle.
The 29-year-old former world record holder - the winner of the 2004 Olympic crown - had been left distraught four years ago after he was forced to withdraw just moments before his opening race in front of his home fans.
But his return to the Olympic arena lasted only a split second when he ploughed into the first hurdle with his left leading leg and crashed heavily to the floor.
Liu - who has been troubled by back and foot problems in the past month - eventually got up and hopped down the track to be embraced by his fellow competitors.
He was helped off the track by Britain's Andy Turner and Spain's Jackson Quinonez and then taken away from the arena in a wheelchair and to the medical centre.
Fellow competitor Balazs Baji of Hungary had waited for Liu at the finish line, taking the Chinese star's hand in his.
"When I was a kid I saw him breaking a world record, winning the Olympic Games in Athens so he's a great idol for me. I'm sorry that he fell. It must be really bad for him," he said.
America's Aries Merritt, the leading hurdler this season, said he felt sorry for Liu.
"It was just terrible. For that to happen to one of the best hurdlers of all time is just a tragedy and I hope he's OK," said Merritt, whose achievement in running the fastest ever Olympic heat of 13.07 seconds was overshadowed by Liu's distress.
"He looked fine before the race, like nothing was wrong with him. He warmed up great. He always has a good warm-up and he was happy and so I don't think anything was wrong with him going into the race.
"I just think he made a small, little mistake, like he ran up on the hurdles a little bit too quickly and he wasn't prepared to take the hurdle at such velocity and he hit it and if you hit a hurdle in the fashion that he hit it there's no way to recover from something like that."
The news stunned Usain Bolt, the men's 100 metres champion, who said: "He's one of the best. For him to push himself and come back last year and for this to happen, it's really sad for any athlete."
Liu's dream of winning gold in front of his home crowd at the Beijing Olympics in 2008 ended in one of the great Olympic anti-climaxes as he turned up for his heat but failed to clear a hurdle, clearly hindered by his Achilles tendon injury.
His career has been hampered by injuries ever since he took gold and equalled the then world record held by Colin Jackson of 12.91 seconds at Athens in 2004.
He was to go on and better it with a time of 12.88 seconds and also win a world title in 2007, but a succession of injuries have taken their toll.
However, he showed the old spark in the world championships last year and was flying when he was twice hindered by the 2008 Olympic champion Dayron Robles and ended up third only to be promoted to second when the Cuban was disqualified from top spot.
His fall yesterday nevertheless shocked and saddened his supporters in China, who were posting tributes on the microblogging site Sina Weibo, where the topic was trending.
"I have to admit, I cried at that moment," mircoblogger Little Actor Zhou Xuanqi wrote. "I wish he could recover soon."
In Beijing, local residents showed their support for Liu.
"I think everyone is feeling sorry for him," said Huang Wanqing, a 24-year-old company clerk. "When we saw him jumping with one leg out the field, we all think that he's already a great guy and he has done what he should."
Guan Yi, a 27-year-old social worker, said it was understandable that Liu could not compete. "I think he was suffering too much pressure. I just hope he can recover soon. I know how tough it is to be an athlete."