“For the Glory. The Life of Eric Liddell” by Duncan Hamilton (published by Black Swan)

God, gold and goodness

“Chariots of Fire” won the 1981 Academy Award for Best Picture, putting excitement into athletics as it told the story of two runners who won gold medals for Britain in the 1924 Olympics in Paris. Surprisingly, perhaps, this occupies only the first third of this biography of one of those men, and then we move on to the remainder of his life as a missionary in China. Consider: the thrill of a great sporting occasion or the earnest attempts of a Christian to improve the lot of the peasantry in a far-off land? It sounds like a no-brainer but in fact it is the remaining two-thirds of this tale of an extraordinary life that packs the punch. It is incredibly moving and terribly tragic. This might well have been the part they should have put in the film.
29. April 2021 18:32

The subject, Eric Liddell, was a devout Scottish Christian who did indeed run for glory, not his own but God’s. In true “bio-pic” style the film was “fact-based” and allowed for plenty of British breast-beating as Liddell and his rival, Harold Abrahams, a Jew, sprinted to victory and fame in the 400 metres and 100 metres respectively. Hamilton’s detailed book corrects the falsehoods of the film and then moves on to tell the full absorbing story of the man dubbed the Flying Scot.

It is simplest to begin at the beginning: Liddell’s father, James, was a former draper ordained in the ministry, and at the age of 27 he was posted to Mongolia by the London Missionary Society in 1898, to push its ends. A probationary in an inauspicious spot 250 miles north-east of Peking, he married a nurse, Mary Reddin, in Shanghai in October 1899. They had met in Stirling, Scotland, some five years earlier and she arrived in China a year after him.

It was the worst of times, as the Boxer Rebellion of 1900-01 raged. This was a violent anti-foreign, anti-colonial and anti-Christian uprising in which robbery, banditry and rape were common. Missionaries and Chinese Christians were often hacked with machetes and burnt alive. If “lucky”, they might only be kidnapped and held for ransom.

Nonetheless, the Liddells not only survived, they had three children, with Eric the middle one, born in Tientsin in 1902. Missionaries had some privileges compared to much of the citizenry but conditions were difficult and there were daily adversities.

In 1907 the family returned to Britain on furlough and in 1908 Eric and his older brother were enrolled in a London Missionary Society School. Their parents and young sister returned to carry on the good work in China. The family wasn’t reunited again until 1920, when the father was allowed another break from tending his foreign flock and embarked on a further furlough to Britain.

In 1921 Eric began his athletics career after being persuaded to race while a student at Edinburgh University. He was fast, and that summer he won two individual Scottish Amateur Athletics Association titles. He was selected by the British Olympic Association to run in Paris in 1924, and this is around about where “Chariots of Fire” comes in.

Like father, like son, Eric Liddell was deeply religious. In 1923 he accepted an invitation to speak at a religious gathering, did well and became an evangelist who toured Scotland to convert non-churchgoers. He came across perfectly: sincere, egalitarian, quiet, persuasive.

The scene was set, then, for the great confrontation: Liddell had to tell the British Olympic Association that he could not compete in the 100 metres or either of the relays in Paris because the schedule called for him to run on the Sabbath, and this it was impossible for him to do. (One invention in the film – corrected, like the others, by Duncan Hamilton – is the revelation on the gangplank, as Liddell is boarding the ferry for Paris, that he will have to run in a 100 metres heat on a Sunday. This wasn’t the way he found out.)

Also, in the film there is a smoky conclave in the British Embassy in Paris where the Prince of Wales and other Establishment figures try unsuccessfully to sway Liddell, only to find he answers to a higher calling. This battle of wills is another invention, as Hamilton tells it, but certainly a compromise was reached whereby Liddell would compete in the 400 metres, a distance unfamiliar to him but free of the strictures of the Sabbath.

Liddell won easily, in world record time, and added a bronze in the 200 metres. Abraham had succeeded in the 100, easing the pressure of some public criticism of Liddell for his religious stance. But to him, running was above all a way of glorifying God, and when the public elevated him to hero status after his 400 success, he saw his achievement as having nothing to do with winning and everything to do with sportsmanship, which he believed to be “playing for your side or country and not for yourself”.

The way was open for Liddell to cash in on his fame but he was never interested in chasing money or acquiring possessions. Liddell was a man not for sale at any price. Instead he followed his calling as a missionary and in 1925 he returned to China, and his family, to teach at the Anglo-Chinese College in Tientsin.

It might be thought that Hamilton’s book – like the film – would tail off here. But Liddell had a saintly presence – completely selfless, inspirational, tireless, honest, principled. Never one to criticise or boast, Liddell was incapable of malice and so rarely suspected it in others. He adored the Sermon on the Mount. Hamilton’s portrait reveals a great man. It could be cloying, perhaps, but it is true.

In 1934, Liddell married Florence MacKenzie, the daughter of a missionary from Canada, in Tientsin Union Church where the two of them had met eight years earlier. Typical of the man, his courting of her had been painstakingly circumspect.

The couple had two daughters, Patricia and Heather, and in 1941 Florence became pregnant again. But China, at war with Japan, by now was too volatile for her to give birth there. Liddell was bound by contract with the London Missionary Society and his conscience would not let him break it. So Florence and their daughters sailed for the safety of Canada, with Liddell to follow on. By this time, Liddell’s tireless missionary work had kept the couple apart for more than half of their marriage, now in its eighth year. After Florence’s departure, he learned by telegram that he had a third daughter.

Liddell never saw that daughter, or his wife and other children again. In 1942, within a month of Pearl Harbour, missionaries in China were rounded up by the Japanese and held in a squalid camp. There was filth, rats, cruelty and inedible food. What happened next to Liddell will devastate readers and surely lead them to seriously question “God’s will”.

Great book.

(Author Hamilton is a two-time winner of the William Hill Sports Book of the Year, with his biographies of football player and manager Brian Clough and cricketer Harold Larwood.)

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