Hurdler Liu Xiang did make an appearance yesterday at the Golden Grand Prix in Shanghai, and came in second in a photo finish against American Terrence Trammell at 13.15 seconds.
It was a strong sign that the 26-year-old Liu is back, though he faced tough scrutiny after his shocking pullout at the Beijing Olympics last year when he limped out of the Bird's Nest in the preliminary round of the 110m men's hurdles.
Nevertheless, last night he was thrilled by the result. "I hesitated a bit and started late, he told CCTV after the race. "But I was more and more excited as I ran along, as if I was taken by some spirit."
The spirit was probably the crowd, thrilled that their hometown boy was running a tight race and returning to restore his country's pride.
Last summer, Liu was labelled a "coward" and "shame of China" for his bowing out of the Games. That shows not only the intense pressure the young man had -- carrying the hopes of 1.3 billion people -- but also that the Chinese look at sports as a great sense of national pride, and not looking at it as just a race.
Those two things have to change. China still puts so much pressure on its athletes, valuing only gold medals and in turn makes the public feel that they have every right to demand more from their athletes. Also, star competitors like Liu are coddled so much, that they train in an isolated environment that makes it hard for them to function in society, especially after they retire.
After the endorsement contracts end and the races are over, these athletes are literally left to pasture -- on their own -- and really don't know how to look after themselves. Ai Dongmei, a former Beijing marathon champion, sold popcorn and clothes on the street. Zou Chunlan, a former national champion weight lifter, scrubbed backs in a bathhouse. China has no real program in place or interest in helping retired athletes get jobs or the education they need to function.
Which is why stars like Liu are trying to milk it for all it's worth and try to retire in relative comfort.
In the meantime though, it looks like Liu's back... but for how long, no one knows.