08/01/2008, 00.00
CHINA
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Eric Liddell, first "Chinese" Olympic champion

He inspired the film "Chariots of Fire". Born in China, he won the 400 meter race at the Paris Olympics in 1924. He died in a Japanese prison camp, in China, where he had returned as a missionary.

Beijing (AsiaNews) - Not everyone may know that the first "Chinese" athlete to win an Olympic medal was a Scotsman born in China. He was Eric Liddell, the son of Presbyterian missionaries, born in Tianjin in 1902. After his Olympic victory in 1924 in Paris - which inspired the film "Chariots of Fire" - Liddell (whose Chinese name is Li Airui) returned to China, where he worked as a Presbyterian missionary, until his death in a Japanese prison camp in 1945.

Liddell remained in China until the was five years old, then moved to Scotland, where he studied near Edinburg. He became a great athlete (cricket, rugby, and running), and participated in the Paris Olympics in 1924. But since the 100 meter race - in which he would have made his best time - was scheduled for a Sunday, he declined to participate, because of his strict and solid religious upbringing.

According to some witnesses, it seems that the king of England himself tried to convince him to compete, in the name of "national pride", but he declined because "the commandments of God come before national honor. I will not run on Sunday".

Liddell trained for the 400 meter race, which he won with a record time of 47.6 seconds, receiving the gold medal.

After his victory, he received a degree in science and returned to Tianjin as a teacher, first in the Anglo-Chinese school, and then in a school for the poor.

In 1941, when war was already underway between China and Japan, he sent his wife and daughters to Canada because of the danger, but remained in China himself to teach in Shaochang. In 1943, Shaochang was conquered by the Japanese, and Liddell was interned in a camp in Weifang, where he tried to help the elderly and sick, and taught children.

Eric Liddell died on February 21, 1945. A few months earlier, prime minister Winston Churchill obtained the liberation of some of the prisoners, and the famous athlete should have been one of them, but he gave up his place to a pregnant prisoner.

His last words were: "It's complete surrender".

Although he was not Chinese by nationality, he was buried in the Mausoleum of the Martyrs, in Shijiazhuang.

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