Eric Liddell is known today largely because of the film, “Chariots of Fire”, in which he is portrayed. He was known as a man of conviction and faith, but was also ridiculed for his ugly, ungainly running style, mouth open, head thrown back and arms flailing. In 1932, the journalist W.W. Marsh remembered Liddell “running with that extraordinary gait of his, like a stricken stag”. But as Harold Abrahams, Olympic 1924 winner of the gold medal in the 100m race (the one which Liddell famously refused to compete in because its final would be on a Sunday), surmised, “People may shout their heads off about his appalling style. Well, let them. He gets there.”
Born in January 1902 to Scottish missionaries in Tientsin, northern China, Liddell was educated in China, and later in a boarding school for missionary children near London. When his family returned to the UK on furlough from China, he would live with them (mainly) in Edinburgh. Athletics were merely a way to fill free time for Liddell, whose goal was to return to China as a missionary, following in his parents’ footsteps; his most famous quote sums it up: “I believe that God made me for a purpose; but he also made me fast. And when I run, I feel his pleasure.”
We know him as a runner, but in fact his entire career in running was only from 1921 to 1925: His first meet was for the Edinburgh Athletics Club in 1921; within 2 years he was running races beyond the Scottish borders and became known as “The Flying Scotsman” (named after the eponymous train famous for its record-breaking speed). Within those four years he also completed a degree in science (he later taught science at the Anglo-Christian College in Tientsin), became a renowned preacher, and won seven caps for Scotland in Rugby. While his Olympic fame would seem to be the crowning achievement of his life, he still considered sport a hobby, and even ran in a few meets while living in China; but his true goal was not the “cinder track” but the mission fields of China to which he returned a year after the Olympics were history.
From 1925 to 1943, Liddell served as a missionary in China. In 1941, he sent his pregnant wife and their two daughters to the safety of her parents’ home in Canada, while he went to serve the poor at a rural mission station in Xiaozhang, where he relieved his brother Rob, who left to recover from illness. Though he had been planning to follow his wife within a few months, as the Japanese made inroads into China Liddell had to relocate to Tianjin, from which he was interred in 1943 in the Japanese internment camp (Weihsien) along with members of the China Inland Mission and children of missionaries. He never saw his family again, and never met his third daughter, Maureen, who was born in Canada.
Even in such dire circumstances, when the POWs began forming cliques to protect and provide for themselves, Liddell was known as a selfless Christian who gave his whole heart to doing what he could for those around him: He organized games, Bible studies, taught science to the children (who referred to him as Uncle Eric), and shamed the richer inmates into sharing the foods they smuggled into the camp. Langdon Gilkey, who also survived the camp and became a prominent theologian in America, said of Liddell: “Often in an evening I would see him bent over a chessboard or a model boat, or directing some sort of square dance – absorbed, weary and interested, pouring all of himself into this effort to capture the imagination of these penned-up youths. He was overflowing with good humour and love for life, and with enthusiasm and charm. It is rare indeed that a person has the good fortune to meet a saint, but he came as close to it as anyone I have ever known.” ( “50 stunning Olympic moments: No8 Eric Liddell’s 400 metres win, 1924”. The Guardian)
David Mitchell, a child-inmate in the camp with Liddell who went on to become the Director for Canada of the Overseas Missionary Fellowship, said this of Liddell: “Eric stood out among the 1800 people packed into our camp, which measured only 150 by 200 yards. He was in charge of the building where we younger children, who had already been away from our parents for four years because of the war, lived with our teachers. He lived in the very crowded men’s dormitory near us (each man had a space of only three by six feet) and supervised our daily rollcall when the guards came to count us. One day a week ‘Uncle Eric’ would look after us, giving our teachers (all missionaries of the China Inland Mission and all women) a break. His gentle face and warm smile, even as he taught us games with the limited equipment available, showed us how much he loved children and how much he missed his own.” (Eric Liddell, “The Disciplines of the Christian Life“)
Little did Eric know that his death would come only months before the liberation of the camp and the end of World War 2: Suffering from an undetected brain tumour, the malnutrition and fatigue of prison life took its toll, and Eric passed away suddenly on 21 February 1945. He was buried in the garden behind the Japanese officers’ quarters, his grave marked by a simple wooden cross. His last words were reported by a fellow missionary to be, “It’s complete surrender”, referring to how he had given his life to God.
His grave and his writings were in danger of being forgotten; a few men dedicated years of their lives to finding both, and have restored his memory to us. His only book, “The Disciplines of the Christian Life“, is now available in paperback and Kindle formats, allowing his powerful voice to speak down through history to us today.