BEIJING (Reuters) - China's leaders have thrown their support behind Liu Xiang, the champion hurdler who stunned the nation with his abrupt departure from the Beijing Olympics, urging him to overcome injury and return to "glory".
Liu was the host nation's best hope of an athletics gold medal at the Beijing Olympics and his pained withdrawal from the 110m hurdles on Monday startled this country where his image hangs on countless billboards.
In a sign of the national prestige invested in the hurdler, Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping sent Liu a "get well" message, state media reported on Tuesday.
The ruling Communist Party's leadership had been "very concerned about Liu Xiang's injury, and hopes he will receive swift treatment and soon heal", said the message from Xi issued by Xinhua news agency.
"Everyone will understand why Liu Xiang had to abandon competition due to injury, and we hope he will cast aside mental burdens and settle his mind on overcoming injury," said Xi, favoured to succeed Hu Jintao as president in five years.
"Lift your fighting spirit and seek to win greater honour for the motherland."
Liu vowed to seek an early return to competing, Xinhua reported.
The message, also issued on the front page of the People's Daily, the Party's official newspaper, underscored how Liu's quest to repeat his victory of the 2004 Athens Games meant so much in the country where track and field gold remains scarce despite China's position at top of the medal table.
After a false start in a heat, Liu stumbled for a few paces, hindered by the injury to his right foot, before hobbling out of the packed Bird's Nest stadium left in stunned silence.
Liu's departure and clouded future have dominated talk and commentary in China, overshadowing the nation's leading gold medal haul. His mother, Ji Fenhua, said the 25-year-old felt the pressure of adulation.
"If I don't train, I'll let too many people down," Ji quoted Liu as saying.
The People's Daily website (www.people.com.cn) criticised Internet speculation that Liu folded under pressure on home soil.
"Perhaps a nation of 1.3 billion should not place the burdens of its aspirations on a boy's shoulders," a commentary said.