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Tue 19 Aug 2008 02:42 AM

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Liu injury darkens China's brightest Games

'Shanghai Express' fails to leave platform while Great Britain third in medals table.

Chinese superstar Liu Xiang sensationally pulled out of the 110m hurdles heats injured Monday, putting a huge dampener on China's celebrations at achieving their most successful Olympics.

Liu, the defending champion, is a national hero in China with his face on billboards everywhere, and his shock withdrawal with a foot injury after just a few strides in his hurdles heat stunned the nation.

The Bird's Nest, packed with a capacity 91,000 fans waiting for Liu's race, went silent in disbelief as he limped from the stadium.

The official athletics television coverage was halted for a hastily arranged press conference where a weeping Sun Haiping, Liu's coach, explained a right heel injury, which has been a problem for years, flared up again.

The sudden withdrawal of the "Shanghai Express", the first Chinese athlete to simultaneously hold a world record, a world title and an Olympic gold, stunned his legion of fans who see Liu as a symbol of China's burgeoning success in the world.

"I came here especially to see him. I am devastated. I just bought one ticket. The Olympics is over for me as well as Liu Xiang," said Sun Yejun, 30, as she wiped tears from her eyes.

It also took the shine off China revelling in its best Olympic gold medal achievement which some hailed as a potential end to US sporting supremacy.

"We have started to dream that China could surpass the sporting hegemony of the United States and become world number one in the number of gold medals," the Beijing Morning Post said in a front page commentary.

China heads the medal table with 39 gold, four more than their previous best of 32 in Athens and well ahead of the United States on 22 and Great Britain on 12 as the Olympics went into their final week.

China reaped another four gold medals Monday, three in gymastics and the men's team table tennis, while the United States won two in athletics and one in equestrian.

After a series of athletics setbacks here, the United States fortunes turned when Angelo Taylor led home Kerron Clement and Bershawn Jackson to sweep the 400m hurdles final and Stephanie Brown-Trafton won the women's discus.

But the star performance at the track belonged to reigning Olympic and world champion Yelena Isinbayeva of Russia who broke her own world record in the women's pole vault.

"I love to be alone at the top," said Isinbayeva who cleared 5.05m. "It's so cool and I will try to keep my position as long as possible."

Brimin Kipruto continued Kenya's dominance of the 3000m steeplechase, winning their seventh consecutive title, while 18-year-old Pamela Jelimo became the first Kenyan woman to win an Olympic track gold when she won the 800m.

Mozambique's Maria Mutola finished fifth in the 33-year-old's sixth and final Olympics.

Jamaica's Usain Bolt, who won the 100m in world record time, continued his quest for an elusive sprint double, cruising into the semi-finals of the men's 200m in another effortless display of sprinting.

He timed 20.29 seconds, with defending champion Shawn Crawford of the United States second fastest in 20.42sec.

Australia won three gold medals on the day starting with the women's triathlon where triple world champion Emma Snowsill won by more than a minute from Vanessa Fernandes of Portugal.

Australia also won both the men's and women's yachting 470 class.

Great Britain ended a 100-year drought in cycling's team pursuit, racing away with the title for the first time since 1908 and smashing their own world record on the way in 3min 53.314sec.

Denmark claimed the silver medal while New Zealand beat defending Olympic champions Australia to claim the bronze.

In women's football, Brazil came from a goal down to thrash Germany 4-1 in their semi-final, avenging their defeat in last year's World Cup final, and setting up a gold medal match against the United States who beat Japan 4-2.

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