Over the past year, injured star hurdler Liu Xiang has been criticized for his sudden withdrawal from the 110m race at the Beijing Olympics and questioned repeatedly about his comeback to the track.
But that negativity turned into standing ovations, cheers and blazing flashlights on Sunday at the awards ceremony for "60 Years, 60 Legends" at the National Olympic Sports Centre in Beijing, where the former Olympic champion was voted one of the 60 most influential athletes since 1949, the founding of New China.
The 26-year-old's eyes filled with tears several times on stage as he received a huge ovation during the 3-hour ceremony, which featured film of his greatest track moments.
"I'm really excited, honored and a little nervous. It has been a long time since I have won a prize," Liu said, wearing a shiny silver suit.
The last time Liu won a title on the track was at the Japan Grand Prix in Osaka in May, 2008, where he breezed to victory in the 110m hurdles in 13.19 seconds in wet and cold conditions.
The sports icon has not raced since and has rarely appeared in public after hobbling out of his first heat at the Beijing Olympics last August. He only returned to training in spikes in July.
"Every athlete has ups and downs and what makes the difference is how you face it," Liu said, holding his prize cup.
"All the hard times will pass, there's still a long road to go down and I will keep going.
"This is a very great prize for me and I'm really grateful to all the people who have been supportive through my career."
Fellow 'legend' Wang Junxia, the women's 5,000m gold medal winner at 1996 Olympic Games, said Liu was her top choice as the nation's greatest athlete.
"I would definitely go for Liu Xiang, it (Athens gold medal) was not just a gold medal," Wang said. "It was a huge breakthrough for Chinese men's track and field and also a major boost to Chinese sports overall considering the status of track and field in the world."
Meanwhile, Liu is confident he will return to the track soon.
"I'm training hard every day and getting prepared for a return to the track. Currently, I'm trying to get my body more stable."
Though officials and coaches refuse to disclose how Liu is progressing, Chen Shiyi, professor of sports medicine at Huashan Hospital, which is in charge of Liu's rehabilitation, said he is ready for low-level competitions.
"It's the Athletics Administrative Center (the sport's governing body) who will decide when Liu will return to compete," Chen said. "But from my point of view, Liu's ankle is now able to undertake the intensity to compete in a normal competition.
"Actually, he has undertaken certain exercises during daily training similar to a competition.
"So, physically speaking, Liu is ready to return at any time."
Chen said there was a meeting early last month with Liu's American doctor, Tom Clanton, who performed the surgery on Liu's injured right foot.
"We sat together, along with officials and other experts, and had an overall review of Liu's recovery. The outcome is positive."
However, Chen admitted it's hard to predict if the hurdler is fully recovered.
"Unlike normal people, Liu is a world-class athlete. It's more complicated to predict if he is fully fit.
"He is physically ready for a normal competition. But that does not mean he is 100 percent fit. We still need to wait and see."
(China Daily September 8, 2009)