Olympic spirit

And so the Rio Olympics comes to an close. The English tabloids are lobbying for the more photogenic gold-medalists to be knighted. Members of the Great Britain team are returning to London on a specially chartered plane with a golden nose. The green diving pool has been returned to blue. An IOC member has been arrested for corruption. The Brazilians can sleep peacefully now the US frat-boy swimmers crime wave is over. The favelas have been forcibly cleared. My favourite irony was the Russian minister for sport complaining that the crowd’s booing of Russian drugged up competitors was “not sporting.

Let us ponder the story of an earlier Olympian, the Scottish runner Eric Liddell. He was entered to run the 100 metres at the Paris Olympics in 1924. Born in China, he was like his father, brother and sister and later his wife, a missionary. The heats for the Paris 100 metres fell on a Sunday and he refused to compete on the day of rest. Instead he switched to the 400 metres and won gold setting a new world record time. He retired from athletics aged 23 (giving up the fame and fortune and honour it could bring) and went to a mission in China in 1925. The Japanese invaded China and by 1941 the country was highly dangerous. The British Government advised all nationals to leave; Liddell stayed to continue his work. He was interned in a Japanese camp, called Weishien, in 1943. A prisoner exchange was arranged involving Japanese and British prisoners, and Liddell was to be one of the lucky ones. He refused to leave and gave his place to a pregnant woman instead. He died in the camp in February 1945, aged 42.

Liddell has never been formally honoured by his country. Harold Abrahams (CBE, 1957) won gold in Paris in the 100 metres. When Alan Wells repeated the feat in Moscow in 1980 he was asked whether he was inspired by Abrahams. Instead, rather magnificently, Wells dedicated his win to Liddell.


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