BEIJING - In a flash, China stopped moving.
When track star and national hero Liu Xiang limped out of the Olympics with an injury yesterday, the nation froze, the only movement coming from the tears dripping down shocked and expressionless faces.
Fans, Chinese reporters and Liu's coach wept. Seventy-five thousand Olympic volunteers gathered in thick packs around televisions. Not only had China stopped, but so had the Games, which is probably fitting, all things considered.
The Olympics reached their finish line earlier than expected this time around. Cancel today's track and field festivities and let's just get on with the closing ceremony.
The two biggest stars of these Games are finished. Michael Phelps with nothing to do but check out his reflection in one of his many shiny gold medals, and Liu camped out in a hospital room somewhere, surely avoiding eye contact with a billion of his countrymen at all costs.
While Americans focused much of their attention on Phelps, these were really Liu's Games. He's as big as Yao Ming here. Around town, his face appears on billboards every other block or so. He has sponsorship deals with Visa, Coca-Cola, Cadillac and Nike. In fact, right now, I'm eating an ice cream cone shaped like a torch; the package bears Liu's smiling picture.
For China, this was a day that will live in infamy. You half expected Olympic officials to cancel the Games entirely, thank everyone for coming and shuttle them all back to the airport.
It's too simple to suggest that just because two athletes are done competing, the life force has leaked from the Olympics. The real problem is the schedule, or more to the point, the diminishing interest in the final week.
There's a reason Beijing's organizers constructed the Bird's Nest and the Water Cube right next to each other, each building unforgettable in design, scope and purpose. In years past, the first half of the Olympics was spent with eyes and ears directed at the swimming pool and the second half focused on the track and field events. Gymnastics bridges the two.
As recently as 2000, track was king. In 2004, there was a bit of a transition, as Phelps made the Athens water boil. But we still paid plenty of attention to Justin Gatlin, Jeremy Wariner, Lauryn Williams and, of course, Marion Jones.
This week, track feels more like a curiosity than actual competition. The stain of drugs is unavoidable. In the United States, professional athletes in baseball and football can outrun the hubbub surrounding steroid involvement. But there's too much idealism attached to the Olympics. There's still a sense that amateurism and purity are the Games' central themes.
So when something incredible happens on the track - for example, Usain Bolt's ridiculously fast time in the 100-meter final - we become voyeurs of the spectacle but not necessarily active participants in the celebration. Water-cooler talk has nothing to do with awe or admiration. Instead, we organize office pools to predict the date that Bolt will have to return his medals.
The lesson we took from Athens has been confirmed: How can you make an emotional investment in something that might be fraudulent? The Olympics aren't supposed to award fool's gold.
There are certainly some great athletes running for their lives at the Bird's Nest this week. And though it might not be fair - because presumably some track stars are clean, right? - this is what Marion's mob of BALCO buddies has wrought for the ensuing generation of track stars.
The biggest draw at the Bird's Nest was to have been Liu. In fact, with a billion people in China piled on his shoulders, he was probably the biggest story line of these Games. Even though his Achilles tendon had been bothering him, 91,000 were expected at the stadium to watch him compete. "When you see the crowd, you realize why he had to come out," said Allan Scott, the hurdler from Great Britain.
The starter's gun fired, another hurdler jumped to a false start and Liu pulled up lame. At a news conference later, his coach, Sun Haiping, apologized to everyone before covering his eyes and weeping.
The official Olympic Web site didn't mince words, calling it "the biggest upset of the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games." It's tough to argue. Liu's departure not only ended the Games for him, but they also signified the end for many.
Barely past the midway point, most of the anticipation of these Olympics has been sapped. We'll still have beach volleyball, basketball and soccer, but it's not the same. The homestretch of the Games is supposed to be reserved for track and field, but the sport is simply unable to outrun its sordid past.
Sure, Americans could bring home some gold from the Bird's Nest medal stands. But that's not the problem.
It's tough to watch knowing that they might have to someday give those medals back. Who wants to be complicit in that?