An Olympic Hero, Airbrushed from China's History

By writer, Robert Marquand | The Christian Science Monitor, August 21, 2008 | Go to article overview

An Olympic Hero, Airbrushed from China's History


writer, Robert Marquand, The Christian Science Monitor


China's first Olympic hero may well have been a basketball player about half the size of Yao Ming - who didn't even play for China. He was a leading scorer for the British in the fabled 1924 Paris Games - a globe-trotting amateur from Amoy whose life as athlete and artist reached wondrous heights before lapsing into unearned obscurity.

Chiu Teng Hiok, the remarkable son of a prominent Chinese pastor, was airbrushed out of history by the political winds of China. Chiu helped Britain win in basketball in a Paris field of 17 teams - the most in any nonmedal sport. In China, he played hoops in missionary schools and YMCAs. In Paris, he dribbled on a grass court at Colombes Stadium, hittingshots termed "pretty" by sportswriters of the day.

In 1924, the British team beat Italy by two points to win the finals in a young sport that got official status in the 1936 Berlin Games.

Once back in England, Chiu the artist emerged as China's first major modernist painter; in 1929, Queen Mary visited his solo exhibit at the Claridge Gallery in London. By age 30, Chiu had worked on four continents - a post-Impressionist painter without borders. But he never forgot the Paris Games; his art-show catalogs always referred to the Olympics.

Yet prior to the Beijing Olympics, the achievement of China's native son received not even a footnote. Barely mentioned also are three Chinese tennis players invited to Paris, including national champion L. Wei, who came in 19th in men's singles out of a field of 82, according to International Olympic Committee records that list them playing for "China."

Today China is pushing a different "first Olympian" - sprinter Liu Changchun. Sprinter Liu defied the Japanese government in Manchuria that wanted to send him to the 1932 LA Games, and he escaped to play for China's Nationalists instead.Western media have brought up Eric Liddell, born in China in 1902 to a family of Scottish missionaries. Mr. Liddell won the 400 meters for Britain in Paris, and helped inspire the 1982 film "Chariots of Fire."

But "Chiu was the first Chinese to participate on a winning team in the Olympics," says Kazmirez Poznanski of the University of Washington in Seattle. "He left with the British basketball team on a train from Victoria station for Paris on 17 July, 1924."

Why China has not recognized Chiu, the three tennis players, or a Chinese competitor in the 1928 Amsterdam Games is unclear. Chiu was Chinese, not a member of the official British delegation. "There's no evidence Chiu changed his passport," says Mr. Poznanski. One explanation is politics. Chiu wasn't political. But in Mao's China, that was the point.

"The question of who is more Chinese, is always a difficult one" in China, says China expert Orville Schell. "But one thing that has been clear is that there has long been a bias, especially in the PRC, against any 'Chinese' who seem to have 'run under the skirts of foreigners.' That may explain Chiu's curious erasure."

To be sure, Chiu was no model for socialist athletics. He came from a wealthy, reform-minded family on Gulangyu Island, a tiny rock- packed with mansions, just off Amoy, now the city of Xiamen in Fujian Province. The port was a center of tea trade, and a front line in the venture of east meets west. …

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