By Nick Mulvenney
LONDON (Reuters) - China's Liu Xiang crashed out of the heats in the 110 meters hurdles at the London Olympics on Tuesday in a dramatic echo of his injury-induced withdrawal from the same stage of the Beijing Games four years ago.
The 2004 Olympic champion and former world record holder hit the first hurdle with his lead leg and tumbled to the ground before being helped from the track with his dream of regaining the title in tatters.
China's first male gold medalist on the Olympic track, Liu remains one of his country's most popular and high-profile sportsmen alongside former basketball player Yao Ming.
The 29-year-old is still plagued by the Achilles injury that forced him to pull out at the Bird's Nest in Beijing 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.
On a cool morning in London, China's vast media corps had streamed into the Olympic Stadium and waited expectantly for the sixth and final heat only for Liu to make another untimely departure.
A supreme technician in the high hurdles, Liu barely even brushes the barriers during a race so it is likely that injury, nerves or a combination of both contributed to such a major error.
Liu's biggest rival, Cuba's defending champion Robles, had earlier looked comfortable as he eased into the semi-finals in 13.33 seconds despite missing most of this season through injury.
American 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.
His compatriot and world champion Jason Richardson, who has also run under 13 seconds this year, won his heat in 13.33. (Reporting by Nick Mulvenney, editing by Alison Wildey)
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