BEIJING (Reuters) - Sixty years before shooter Xu Haifeng fired himself into the record books as China’s first Olympic champion, another Chinese-born athlete raced, with little less fanfare, to a gold medal at the 1924 Games.
Eric Liddell, best known as the subject of the 1981 film “Chariots of Fire”, was born in the north Chinese port city Tianjin in 1902 and died in a Japanese internment camp in China in 1945 after following his parents into missionary work there.
John Keddie, who has written a new biography of the Scot, believes there might be a case for calling Liddell China’s first Olympic champion even though he ran for Britain when he won 400 meters gold at the Paris Olympics.
“He was born in China, he died in China, he helped the Chinese people and he had a great love for China, it really was his frame of reference in his life,” he told Reuters by telephone.
“These things endear him to the Chinese even though in principle there is a hesitancy about making a hero of someone who was a Christian missionary.”
That hesitancy reflects bitterness over the role of missionaries, who were often seen by many Chinese and by Western officials as harbingers of colonial control throughout the 19th and first half of the 20th century.
As a church minister and an authority on Scottish athletics, Keddie himself was used as a reference-point for the character of Liddell by the screenwriter of the multiple Oscar-winning “Chariots of Fire”.
The film told how Liddell, Scotland’s finest sprinter, skipped his favored 100 meters because his religious convictions forbade him from running on a Sunday.
Rather than not compete at all, Liddell elected to take part in the 200, where he won bronze, and, more famously, the 400.
Despite having virtually no experience of running the longer race before the start of 1924, he hurtled his way around the track with his head back and arms flailing to win by four meters in a world record time of 47.6 seconds.
Keddie believes Liddell, despite being one of Britain’s greatest athletes, would have little chance of making it in today’s sporting environment.
“It would be very difficult for an Eric Liddell type to do more than potter around these days because of the devotion required to compete,” he said. “He wouldn’t have seen that as very attractive.”
The reason for that was Liddell’s great commitment to his faith, which led him to turn his back on fame and fortune and return to China as a missionary a year after his Paris triumph.
He continued to race in China and helped establish a facility in Tianjin modeled on his favorite running track at Stamford Bridge in London, the home of Chelsea Football Club.
After the Japanese invasion of the late 1930s, he worked tirelessly to help the people of China, Keddie said, staying on even after Japan went to war with Britain in 1941.
In 1943, he was interned with other foreign nationals in a camp in Weifeng, Shandong Province, where he remained until his death two years later at the age of 43.
“They suffered a great deal of deprivation at Weifeng, he must have deteriorated a great deal there but what was the cause of the brain tumor that eventually caused his death is another matter,” he said.
There is a memorial to Liddell in Weifeng.
Keddie is coming to Beijing for the Olympics but he thinks Liddell would reflect his own discomfort at the modern world of sport and would have been “horrified” at the recent doping scandals in track and field.
“The position of sport has changed so much, it has become almost a new religion, a form of idolatry,” he said.
“It will, however, always remain in relation to ultimate issues, a triviality.”
Editing by Alison Williams