Chariots of Fire:
The life of the Scottish runner Eric Liddell
Bio of the famous runner who was the subject of the film Chariots of Fire. Essay does not mention the Bahá'í Faith. The title was given by the author, and refers to the film which was about Eric Liddell (see imdb.com). [-J.W., 2012]
I believe Rudyard Kipling caught the essence of foot racing in his poem "If."
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the will which says to them: "Hold on";
My family was always interested in track and field, or as we called it in Scotland, athletics. My mother’s brother Neil, had won the Glasgow cup in a 440 yard race. During the depression, dad, who was out of work and could not afford bus or train fare, would walk to Highland Games, in the hope of picking up a prize. He could sprint fairly well, and developed some skill as a pole vaulter. Lacking any equipment, he used a solid wooden clothes pole and practiced vaulting over soccer goal posts which are eight feet, six inches high, and very unforgiving when he failed to clear the cross bar. Usually there were very few competitors in pole vault, but dad told me of one occasion when Bill Speedie, the Scottish Champion, showed up. He could vault more than two feet higher than dad; Embarrassing.
By 1943, my brother Bobby was shaping up to be a fine miler and cross country runner and had finally managed to get into the Royal Air Force where he continued his running career with inter unit competitions. My dad, who was an excellent trainer, used to hold up Bobby, thirteen years older than I, as a fine example, and he was.
Another role model he told me about was the famous Scottish runner Eric Liddell, who was willing to sacrifice everything for principle. Observing the Sabbath was minimal in my family, but to Eric Liddell it was a vital part of his spiritual life. We respected this without having any intention of emulating it. "Eric Liddell had integrity," dad told me. "It is always important to do what you think is the right thing," he said. "Don’t take the easy road."
Eric Liddell once said "In the dust of defeat, there is glory, if you have given your best." As someone who, on many a good day, finished in second place, I found that thought very comforting.
"The past is a foreign country - they do things differently there." L.P. Hartley.
The world changed a great deal since the 1920s. Sport and competition was something individuals did after work or school. No one made a full time career of it. Even in my early days of competition in track and field, in the late 1940s, the philosophy of coaches was that an athlete had to train twice a week plus a Saturday competition. More than that and the athlete would "go stale."
The first of the modern Olympic Games had taken place as recently as 1898 and there was much less hoopla and commercialism. Television now pays millions for the right to cover major sporting events. Commercial companies pay millions for advertising time on major sports programs.
Back then, an amateur athlete could not receive any money, only a medal or a prize in competition. Today the winner of a prime Olympic medal such as the 100 meters can parlay that into millions in earnings. In contrast, Jim Thorpe, a native American of the Sac and Fox tribe, who won both the pentathlon and decathlon in the 1912 Olympics, was stripped of his medals when it was discovered he had been payed for playing semi pro baseball for two years before the Olympics. In 1983, thirty years after his death, the International Olympic Committee restored his medals.
In those days there were no track suits. Warm up clothes consisted of an old pair of flannel trousers and a sweater with a towel tucked around the neck. The competition uniform was knee length shorts and a T-shirt with a club or national badge on it. They ran on a cinder or grass tracks, and there were no starting blocks. Each runner carried a little trowel to dig the holes for his feet behind the starting line for the sprints.
It was not until my own time of competing from age fourteen onwards in the mid 1940s and 50s that some of this changed. Before specialized running shoes, we ran in sandshoes, with plain flat rubber soles and canvas uppers. A marathon runner in our club, the Clydesdale Harriers, got the bright idea of slicing a 4"X6" rubber sponge into wedges to provide heel cushioning for road running, and in no time we all copied him. The only spiked running shoes available until the 1950s were hand made. In 1972 Bill Bowerman, the coach for the University of Oregon, borrowed his wife’s waffle iron and made a new type of sole for running shoes. That was the beginning of the Nike Company.Cushioning and arch support followed soon after.
Tianjin, in north China: a strange place for a Scotsman to be born, especially in 1902. But Eric Liddell’s parents were Scottish missionaries with the London Missionary Society. Eric attended school in China until age five. At six he and his brother Robert, eight years old, were enrolled in Eltham College, Nottingham, a boarding school in England for the sons of missionaries. After leaving them at the boarding school, the parents and sister Jenny returned to China. During the boys’ time in Eltham, parents, sister and new brother Ernest came home on leave a couple of times and the family was able to be together, living in Edinburgh, Scotland.
At Eltham, Eric became an outstanding athlete and was awarded the Blackheath Cup as the best athlete of the year. As young as age of fifteen he played cricket for the First XI, rugby for the First XV, and later became captain of both teams. His headmaster described him as being "entirely without vanity." This was to be a very apt description for Eric Liddell’s conduct throughout his life..
While still at Eltham College Liddell became well known as the fastest runner in Scotland. Newspapers carried stories of his feats at track meets, and many articles stated he was a potential Olympic winner.
Because he was so well respected as an athlete and a devoted Christian, Eric was chosen to speak for the Glasgow Students’ Evangelical Union (GSEU). This group hoped he would attract large crowds to hear the Gospel. The GSEU would send out groups of ten men to stay with the local population in an area better known for razor slashing than hymn singing. It was Eric’s job to be the lead speaker and to evangelize the men of Scotland. At this time the Evangelical Union was promoting a theme of "muscular Christians."
In 1921, Eric joined his brother Robby at the University of Edinburgh to study Pure Science. Running and rugby, however, played a large part of his university life. He ran in 100 yards and 220 yards races and played rugby for the University club. He soon won a place on the Scottish national rugby team where he played wing three quarter. In 1922 and 1923 he played in seven out of the eight Five Nations (England, Ireland, Wales, Scotland and France) international matches. In 1923 at the British Amateur Athletic Association Championships he won the 100 yards, setting a British record of 9.7 seconds, a record that stood for thirty-five years. He also won the 220 yards in 21.6 seconds.
Harold Abrahams was used to being Britains premier sprinter. His view was if you don’t break the tape, you are a loser. When Eric beat him at the AAA Championships, he became very discouraged and had an interesting discussion with his lady friend Sybil Evers, about pulling out of the Olympic team.
Harold Abrahams: "If I can’t win, I won’t go."
Sybil Evers: "If you don’t go, you can’t win."
Another interesting conversation took place between Harold and his coach, Sam Mussabini.
Sam Mussabini: "Eric Liddell? He’s no real problem..."
Harold Abrahams: "You could have fooled me." (Eric had just beaten Harold.)
Sam Mussabini:"Yeah, he’s fast! But he won’t go any faster; not in the dash, anyway. He’s a gut runner, digs deep! But a short sprint is run on nerves. It’s tailor made for neurotics."
What did Eric Liddell have to say about running?
"Where does the power come from, to see the race to its end? From within."
"I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. When I run I feel His pleasure."
Even more impressive than Eric’s athletic ability was the way he competed. When knocked down in a race, he didn't complain or point fingers. He persevered. In 1923, Eric represented Scotland in a triangular Scotland - England - Ireland international match at Stoke on Trent, England. Running in the 440 yard race he was bumped and knocked to the ground a few strides into the race. He got up, hesitated briefly, then pursued his opponents, now 20 yards ahead. He passed the leaders shortly before the finish line and collapsed after breaking the tape.
The 1924 Olympic Games were hosted by the City of Paris. Without doubt one of Scotland's greatest sporting heroes, Eric Liddell, owes much more of his fame to a race he didn't run than any he did. However, the uplifting manner in which he lived his life, as portrayed in the film Chariots of Fire, truly marks him as one of the greatest Scottish heroes.
Since he was a devout Christian and a man of principle, Eric refused to run in any race held on a Sunday, the Sabbath. To Harold Abrahams relief, Eric withdrew from the 100 metres, his best event. The heats for the 4 x 100 and the 4 x 400 metres relays were also held on Sundays so he withdrew from those teams, too. The movie Chariots of Fire shows this happening as they boarded the ship for France, but that is not how it happened. The schedule had been published several months earlier, and his decision made well before the Games. Now, instead of having five opportunities to medal, he was down to two long shots. Eric had spent the months before the Games preparing for the 400 metres, but his best time was 49.6, set in winning the 1924 British Championships. This was quite modest by international standards; neither was his 200 meters time up to world levels.
The 100 meters final took place early in the Games, and Harold Abrahams surprised everyone except his coach, by winning the gold medal and setting an Olympic record. Liddell did not see the race; he spent that particular Sabbath preaching in the Scots Church in Paris.
Despite his 200 metres time being slow before the Olympics, Eric managed to take third place in the 200 metres behind Jackson Scholz and Charlie Paddock of the USA. In that race he beat his British sprint rival, Harold Abrahams. This was the last time Eric and Harold raced together. Eric had qualified for the final of the 400 metres. He was well loved, and the pipes and drums of the Cameron Highlanders Regiment played outside the stadium for an hour before he ran. As he approached the starting position for the race, he was handed a slip of paper by an American Team masseur. He opened it and read a quotation from 1 Samuel 2:30 "Those who honour Me, them will I honour."
The 400 meters was considered a middle distance race in those days and normal strategy was to sprint the first bend, coast down the back straight, then give it everything for the remainder of the race. He faced a strong field in that distance, in particular from the American Team, one of whom, Jackson Schulz, had bested Liddell in the 200 meters. He also had to contend with some negative British press, who could not understand his placing God above winning a medal for King and country. Liddell was to some extent helped by the American attitude, as their coach had instructed their runners not to worry about the Scot, whom he was sure would burn out after 200 meters. Liddell, however, was ready for the challenge and, after sportingly shaking the hands of each of his competitors, the "Flying Scotsman" was off.
Inspired by the pipe music and the biblical message, Eric raced all of the first 200 meters covering it in 22.2 seconds, close to his best time for that distance alone. This put him well clear of the favoured American runners. He was never challenged, but led the whole way and won by six meters in 47.6 seconds, breaking the Olympic and world records. This time stood as a European record for twelve years until the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games.
To win a race in a distance you are not familiar with is no mean feat, to do it to win Olympic gold is something else again, and to set a world record in the process raises the feat to incredible.
After the Games, in 1924, Eric graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree from Edinburgh University. He continued to compete and later in the year, running the anchor leg in a 4X400 meters race helped the British Empire team beat the team from the USA. In the same year he won the 100, the 220, and the 440 yards at the Scottish Championships. He was the only athlete ever to win all three of these events in this competition, and he repeated the feat in 1925.
Eric was at the top of his game as a runner, but did not stay on to compete in the 1928 Olympics. After his spectacular winning of the Olympic gold medal, Eric quietly announced his intent to go to China as a missionary: "It has been a wonderful experience to compete in the Olympic Games and to bring home a gold medal. But since I have been a young lad, I have had my eyes on a different prize. You see, each one of us is in a greater race than any I have run in Paris, and this race ends when God gives out the medals. It has always been my intention to be a missionary, and I have just received word that I have been accepted as a chemistry teacher at the Anglo-Chinese College in Tientsin, China. From now on, I will be putting my energy into preparing to take up that position."
Having been born in China and left at the age of five in 1907, Eric returned as a missionary in 1925 and used his athletic experience to train boys in a number of sports. One of his many responsibilities was as superintendent of the Sunday school at Union Church where his father was pastor. He lived at 38 Chongqing Road and today a plaque commemorates his former residence. He also helped to build the Minyuan Stadium in Tianjin. He suggested it be copied exactly from Chelsea Football club’s ground, where he had competed and said it was his favourite running venue.
Eric continued to compete occasionally within China. He beat the French and Japanese Olympic team representatives in the 200 and 400 metres at the South Manchurian Railway celebrations in 1928 and also gained a victory in the 1930 North China championships.
During his first leave from missionary work in 1932, he was ordained a minister of religion. In 1934 in Tianjin, he married Florence Mackenzie, a Canadian whose parents were also missionaries.
In 1940 traveling on leave was dangerous. Once, when Eric and his wife and daughters were on leave, they crossed the Atlantic on their way from Scotland back to China. No less than three ships in their convoy were sunk by U-Boats. At one point, a torpedo struck their ship, but miraculously, it failed to explode.
Eric now faced risks daily. He and a Chinese friend were bicycling home from a wedding to a missionary hospital in Siaochang when they heard the sound of gunfire nearby. Both jumped off their bikes as bullets flew around them. Suddenly the firing stopped, and several nationalist Chinese soldiers sheepishly apologized - they had mistaken Eric and his friend for communist or Japanese enemies. In a letter written to his wife, Eric said, "When I am out it is giving, giving, giving all the time, and trying to get to know the people, and trying to leave them a message of encouragement and peace in a time when there is no external peace at all." .
In 1941, living in China became precarious because of invasion by the Japanese, so the British government advised all of its nationals to leave. Florence, who was pregnant, left with their daughters Patricia and Heather, moving back to Toronto to stay with her parents. Sending his wife and daughters away was probably the most difficult thing Eric did in his life. He would never see them again. His parting words to his wife were "Those who love God never meet for the last time."
Eric accepted a position serving the poor at a rural mission in Saochang. He joined his brother, Rob, who was a doctor there. The station was severely understaffed and the missionaries were exhausted. A constant stream of locals came at all hours for medical treatment. Eric and his brother were overworked and suffered daily hardships. When the invading Japanese pushed back the Chinese Eighth Army, they took over the mission station and Eric left to work in Tianjin. In 1943 he was imprisoned in the Weihsien Internment Camp with many others.
The Japanese were cruel and ruthless in their occupation of China. Over ten million people died during this time, mostly civilians, women and children. Many died of disease, physical violence, and malnutrition in prisoner of war and internment camps.
Eric became a leader and organizer in the camp, but food, medicine, and other supplies were scarce and life was hard. There were many cliques in the camp, even some fellow missionaries formed one, and instead of helping they moralized and behaved selfishly. Some inmates, mainly oil company executives, managed to bribe the guards into giving them extra rations and luxury goods. Liddell shamed them into sharing these with the rest of the inmates.
Eric kept busy helping the sick and the elderly, teaching at the camp school Bible classes, arranging games and teaching science to the children who called him "Uncle Eric."
When Chefoo School was closed by the Japanese, the entire staff, faculty and students were placed in the Weihsien Camp. The youth and children, some as young as six years old, would not see their parents for years, and parents would have no idea if their children were living or dead.
Missing their parents, the young people and children were lonely and afraid. They needed someone to look out for them and to have activities to distract them from their fears and the harsh life. Eric was the ideal man for the job. He would not break the Sabbath for King and country, nor for personal glory, but he did for the children and for the first time in his life, indulged in sporting activity full time, refereeing soccer matches and organizing games even on Sundays. Another occasion on which Eric did not keep the Sabbath was when he refereed a men’s hockey match to stop fighting amongst the players. He was the only one trusted not to take sides. As Jesus said, when accused of healing the sick on a Sabbath, ‘The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath."
One of his fellow prisoners, Norman Cliff, wrote a book about his experiences in the camp called "The Courtyard of the Happy Way," which detailed the remarkable characters in the camp. Cliff described Liddell as "the finest Christian gentleman it has been my pleasure to meet. In all my time in the camp, I never heard him say a bad word about anybody." Every written record by anyone who was imprisoned in the camp mentions Eric Liddell in glowing terms. He was a friend to all.
The day he died, Eric wrote his last letter to his wife. He spoke of suffering a nervous breakdown due to overwork. But though overwork and malnourishment may have hastened his death in fact he had an inoperable brain tumour. He died on 21 February, 1945, at the age of forty three. A friend reported his last words, "It’s complete surrender," in reference to how he had given his life to God.
Eric died just a few months before American troops freed the camp and rescued the survivors. He was greatly mourned not only in Weihsien Internment Camp, but also in Scotland. A fellow internee, Langdon Gilkey, later wrote, "The entire camp, especially its youth, was stunned for days, so great was the vacuum that Eric’s death left."
I remember I was travelling on a streetcar when I saw the large black headlines in the Glasgow Evening Times newspaper that someone else was reading. "ERIC LIDDELL DEAD." Even at ten years old, I was as stunned as anyone.
* * * *
Fifty six years after the 1924 Olympics, another Scot, Allan Wells won the gold medal in the 100 metres at the 1980 Moscow Olympics. When asked if he dedicated his victory to Harold Abrahams, the last member of a British team to win the event, Allan said "No. This one was for Eric."
The school where Eric taught is still in use today. In 1991 one of Eric’s daughters visited the school and presented them with a medal he had won for running. A poll conducted by The Scotsman newspaper in 2008 voted Eric Liddell the most popular athlete Scotland has ever produced
Upon his death, Liddell's grave at the former camp site in Weifang, was marked by a simple wooden cross erected by his fellow prisoners, with his name written on it in boot polish. In the aftermath of the war, his gravesite was forgotten and for a long time nobody knew where he was buried. However, the site was identified many years later, and Edinburgh University erected a stone of Mull granite there in 1991. The headstone carries a few simple words from the Book of Isaiah 40:31 "They shall mount with wings as eagles; they shall run and not be weary."As part of the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the internment camp in 2005, the city of Weifang commemorated Liddell by laying a wreath at his grave.
Starting in 2009 Eric is honoured annually with a feast day on the liturgical calendar of the Episcopal Church (USA) on 22 February. However, perhaps a tribute that Liddell himself would have more appreciated, was the setting up of the Eric Liddell centre in the old North Morningside Church at "Holy Corner" in Edinburgh. Once every four years, the Olympic year, Edinburgh University holds a parade in his memory.
When China was about to host the 2008 Olympic Games, which they did in a memorable way, they listed one Li Airui as the first Chinese national to win Olympic medals. Li Airui is the Chinese name for Eric Liddell.
It was not until 2008 that China released news that back in 1944 a prisoner exchange had been arranged between the Japanese and British, with full approval of Winston Churchill. After two years of malnutrition, overwork and abuse, Eric Liddell was scheduled to be released from the camp. Freedom! Instead he quietly stepped back, giving his position to a pregnant woman. This news came as a great surprise, for he told no one, not even his family, but it was typical of the man.
In Eric’s own words: "You see, each one of us is in a greater race than any I have run in Paris, and this race ends when God gives out the medals."
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds' worth of distance run –
Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it,
And - which is more - you'll be a man my son!
Well run, my friend, well run.