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China football ultras keep 'Chariots of Fire' runner burning bright

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Shanghai (AFP)

Eric Liddell was a Scottish Olympic champion but a group of diehard Chinese football fans is determined that the legendary runner is not forgotten there, 75 years after his death.

The 400m gold medallist from the 1924 Paris Olympics, immortalised in Oscar-winning film "Chariots of Fire", was a Christian missionary and athlete who was born, worked and died in China.

He was 43 when he succumbed to a brain tumour at a Japanese internment camp in 1945. He is said to have refused a ticket out from British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, instead giving it to a pregnant woman.

Now, three-quarters of a century later, fanatical supporters of Chinese Super League club Tianjin Teda want to ensure that the memory of Liddell's contribution to the city of his birth does not fade away.

"Eric was a great man. He was not a Chinese national but we consider him a Tianjiner," said Sam Wang, 25, co-founder of ultras group "Tiger Wings".

"He sacrificed his life in China."

In his honour, Wang and his fellow Tianjin diehards made a flag depicting Liddell with a gold medal slung around his neck. They plan to send it to Liddell's family.

Wang said the flag was partly a riposte to what he sees as a rise in nationalism among fans of some other Chinese football clubs.

- Stamford Bridge link -

In an historic area of Tianjin, a city of 15 million people on China's northeast coast, lies Minyuan Stadium, the former home of Tianjin Teda.

It has been turned into a cultural centre but it was Liddell's idea to base the stadium's design on Stamford Bridge, home ground of London club Chelsea.

"He brought the drawings of Stamford Bridge stadium to Tianjin in 1925 so it was one of the earliest cities in China to have a stadium," said Bai Guosheng, director of Tianjin Sports Museum.

"I think he deserves to be remembered -- he was a selfless devotee to Chinese sports and laid the groundwork for modern sports in China."

After his birth in 1902 in Tianjin to missionary parents, Liddell was educated in Britain and represented his country at the Olympics.

But he returned to China as a missionary and was also a sports and chemistry teacher in Tianjin. He is regarded by some as China's first Olympic champion.

In 2015, a statue to Liddell was unveiled in Weifang, the city south of Tianjin where he died in a Japanese camp.

At the unveiling, Liddell's daughter Patricia told The Times of London: "My father was multi-faceted, he didn't just appeal to religious people.

"He was born in China, he worked in China, he died in China.

"He's their Olympic hero. He didn't leave the Chinese people when the going got tough."

- 'We won't forget him' -

There are no suggestions China is airbrushing the "Flying Scotsman" from history but the Tianjin fans want to keep his star burning bright.

"A few years ago the nationalism in China began increasing and there were a few neo-Nazi ultras groups emerging in China," said Wang.

"But Tianjin has a long history of having international people from around the world and it's our culture to absorb cultures from all over the world.

"We wanted our voice to be heard and Eric was born in Tianjin.

"We want to deliver the message to the locals and make sure they remember him and pass his legacy through generations of Tianjin football fans.

"We will not forget him."

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