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China & Nike Weep: Liu Xiang is Out

Liu Xiang
AP
Liu Xiang

I couldn't believe it when I heard it. Chinese hurdler Liu Xiang, who became this vast country's biggest sports star and maybe biggest celebrity, walked off the track this morning in Beijing in pain -- giving up his chance to defend his 110-meter hurdles gold he won in Athens four years ago.

As predicted, China likely will leave these games as the leader in gold medals for the first time ever, but it will not have the most important gold -- the gold of Liu Xiang, which the nation wanted more than any other.

The New York Times put it best by saying that one-fifth of humanity expected this guy to win. It wasn't fair.

He couldn't drive. He wasn't allowed to have a girlfriend. According to one report, he was ordered to stay away from cholesterol. He was basically kept in seclusion (though I somehow managed to be at two of his public events over the last year).

And so it was sadly the truth when his coach, who also became his roommate, was quoted as saying that if he didn't win gold all other things in his racing career would be meaningless.

His comeback -- if there is one -- will likely be shrouded in the same mystery that came in these past four years.

But what will be very public is what all the companies -- which helped Xiang gross $23 million in 2007, according to Forbes -- will do until that time comes.

With sponsors hoping to latch on to China's population and its love affair with this 25-year-old track star, Xiang might have had more active deals than any athlete in the history of sports. Here's the list I've seen out there: Coca-Cola, Nike, Amwa, Cadillac, Visa , Yili Dairy, Nutrilite, Shanshan Xifu, Jager, Loncin Motorcycle, China Mobile and Konka.

"Liu Xiang is the greatest Chinese track and field athlete of all time," Nike spokesman Dean Stoyer said in a statement.

"In winning gold in Athens in 2004 and later becoming the world record holder, he has been and will continue to be a true inspiration to his country and his fans throughout the world. Nike is proud to work closely with Liu Xiang. Our thoughts are with him and we look forward to his return from injury."

Visa spokesman J.J. Carter in a statement said: "This is extraordinarily disappointing news for Liu Xiang. We have great sympathy for him and wish him a speedy recovery. Nothing will ever take away his performance in Athens. He will always remain a great Chinese icon and a friend of Visa."

The companies like Nike and Visa got their money's worth in Liu Xiang. He was probably on more billboards than any athlete had in a single city ever.

But there's going to have to be a phasing out in order for it not to be uncomfortable. It will also be harder for companies to renew any deal without getting more medical reports. Because of the seclusion, most sponsors had no idea of the extent of Liu Xiang's injury to his right foot until his coach announced it today.

In Chinese, Liu Xiang means "to soar." Today, he was just "sore."

Questions? Comments? SportsBiz@cnbc.com