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Hero honored

Olympic gold medal-winning runner Eric Liddell will be celebrated tonight in a show called "Beyond the Chariots," looking at the man's life and faith, from when he returned to China until his untimely and sad demise, writes Douglas Williams.

There was no small amount of hype surrounding Eric Liddell in the run- up to the 1924 Paris Olympics. The British public was quietly confident that their lightning-fast sprinter, born in Tianjin in 1902, would bring home gold in the 100 meters.

He did bring home gold, but not for the 100 meters.

Liddell's Scottish father, a missionary working in China, had instilled in him a strong faith that was to be tested to the limit in Paris that summer.

One of the qualifying heats for the 100m final fell on a Sunday, the Sabbath, and Liddell refused to take part. One Sunday, one race, Olympic gold at stake and the hopes of a nation - but the Edinburgh University undergraduate would have none of it. As a strict evangelical, he would simply not race on the Sabbath. He would, however, run in the 400 meters, a distance he had never competed at but which didn't have heats on Sundays.

Astonishingly he won, took gold and smashed the world record in the process. His refusal to run the 100m was big news but his victory sent shockwaves around the world.

It inspired the film "Chariots of Fire," which won four Oscars, and the one-man show "Beyond the Chariots" by Rich Swingle, which plays tonight in Shanghai.

"Beyond the Chariots" looks at Liddell's life beyond the Olympics when he returned to China to initially teach science at the Tianjin Anglo Chinese College and later serve as a missionary like his father. He was ordained as a minister in 1932.

"Despite all the fame and adulation he was showered with after the Olympics and all the career opportunities that were presenting themselves at the time, Liddell chose to return to China and teach," says Swingle who has performed his show off Broadway, across the States, Canada and in Hong Kong. He has also performed the show in front of Liddell's three daughters who now live in Canada.

"His daughters told me they found the show a cathartic experience," says Swingle. "It brought them a sense of closure."

Liddell sent his wife and daughters from their Tianjin home to safety in Canada in 1941 with war encroaching.

Swingle, also a runner, is returning to the Chinese mainland for the first time in 20 years. "I competed in an International Sports Exchange program in Guangzhou in 1986. It was a great experience and it was then that I heard about the Liddell story. It has fascinated and inspired me ever since," says the native New Yorker.

As a competitive runner, Swingle listened to the "Chariots of Fire" Vangelis soundtrack before races.

"Liddell was obeying his calling when he returned to China, it was what God wanted him to do, or so he believed," says Swingle, an actor.

Liddell taught and worked as a missionary in the Tianjin area until he was interned in a Japanese concentration camp in Weifang, Shandong Province, in 1943.

"Even as a prisoner Liddell continued teaching and carrying out pastoral duties," says Swingle who bares a remarkable similarity to Liddell. "In our research we've met several of his students from both his time in Tianjin and in the camp and they all say he was an inspiring teacher."

The show looks at how Liddell gets on with one of his students in the camp, the fictional Maiker, a Chinese who is also played by Liddle. "The two have a volatile relationship, with Maiker holding some resentment towards Liddell due to familial history. Maiker is basically anti-Westerner," explains Swingle.

"In the show I want to show that although there were Westerners who came to China to merely exploit the country, Liddell wasn't one of them. The same is true today, while some are here for their own ends, many aren't," says Maiker.

"I also hope to get across some of Liddell's philosophy. He was a great believer that if something is worth doing then it's worth doing well. I also think the message of Liddell's life is to love each other wholeheartedly no matter where we come from."

Liddell died in the camp in 1945, six months before the end of the war, from a brain tumor brought on by overwork and malnourishment. He is interred in the Mausoleum of Martyrs in Shijiazhuang, Hebei Province.

Time: January 13, 8pm

Venue: Community Center Shanghai, 568 Julu Rd

Tel: 6247-2880

Tickets: Free


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