Genealogy: Eric Liddell, Olympian

Genealogy: Eric Liddell, Olympian
By Brooke Lehmann
"The secret of my success over the 400m is that I run the first 200m as fast as I can. Then, for the second 200m, with God's help I run faster."
In light of the London 2012 Olympics, inspiring the United Kingdom's apt cinematic re-release of the Oscar winning 1981 film Chariots of Fire, many are turning their memories to Olympic hero Eric Liddell, and his inspirational 1924 Paris gold. 

Remembered as 'the flying Scotsman' and the man 'who wouldn't run on a Sunday', and as a short, not overly 'pretty' runner, Liddell's athletic career came a strict second in the life of this gentleman of faith.

Born in Tientsin (also known as Tianjin), North China, on the 16th January 1902 to London Missionary Society couple, Rev. and Mrs James Dunlop Liddell, he was the second eldest to brother Rob, and later his two younger siblings, sister Jenny and brother Ernest.

Eric and brother Rob were educated in England with Eric first attending a small school in Drymen (Scotland), and later, in 1908, at Eltham College in Blackheath. During his time at Eltham (a boarding school strictly for the sons of missionaries), Liddell's parents would return with his two younger siblings on furlough, thus uniting them as a family once again, mainly residing in Edinburgh during their stay.

In 1920 Eric commenced Science studies at Edinburgh University, where his brother Rob was already in attendance. During this time, his home was a hostel for medical students intending to be missionaries, located at 56 George Square in Edinburgh. Although Liddell was not studying medicine, lenience was granted him at the dwelling due to his brother being the resident doctor at the Cowgate Dispensary run by the Edinburgh Medical Missionary Society (EMMS), as well as the incontrovertible truth that he had every intention of becoming a missionary. During his university studies, Liddell also attended Congregational College from October 1924 to June 1925 to study theology.

Liddell's athletic ability was always indisputable, however, it was at university where his athleticism truly started to make its mark. Dr. George Graham-Cumming, a fellow hostel resident, fondly recalls Liddell organising friendly races in which he would often allow a five-pace handicap to his fellow runners, then starting after them, claiming an irrefutable win. As Dr. Graham-Cumming remembers, "There was strictly no competition but I proudly claim to have raced with Eric Liddell."

The 'broad shouldered, rather stocky, not too tall individual' (as recalled by Dr. Graham-Cumming), was also a skilled rugby player, playing for the Edinburgh University team and later for Scotland in seven Scottish Internationals as wing three quarter, with A.L. Gracie. Later, however, his rugby career and running career came to a head as there was insufficient time for both sports. Liddell, quite pleasingly, went with running. Training tirelessly, Liddell's eyes were focused on the 100 metre gold in the upcoming 1924 Paris Olympics.

All Great Britain's hopes rested on the 'Flying Scotsman' for the 100m race; a hope that was soon dashed as Liddell famously forsook the prized race, as it was to be run on a Sunday – an act that, due to his impenetrable faith, would not be condoned – this was not his sole abdication due to events being held that specific day.

After withdrawing from the 100 metres, Liddell entered the 400m with little expected of him. As famously portrayed in the film Chariots of Fire, an American man (not Jackson Scholz as shown in the film), handed him a small piece of paper, which, upon inspection, had the words from 1 Samuel 2:30 scribbled on it: "Those who honour me I will honour".

Along with this encouragement, and the playing of the pipes and drums of the Cameron Highlanders, an an electric and supportive atmosphere was created for the Scotsman. Though Liddell was at a disadvantage from the beginning (he was placed on the rim of curve, a position that made it difficult to hear the starter's pistol, also leaving him without a visible competitor), his 47 3-5 second win became his third World Record in two days, thus becoming the most talked about event in the Games.

An article in The Western Daily Press on 12th July 1924 describes the victory, "...with head thrown back and chin thrust out in his usual style, he flashed past the tape to gain what was probably the greatest victory of the meeting".

Shortly after his record breaking victory, Liddell graduated from university and then returned to China in 1925, to fulfil his desire of becoming a missionary. On his first furlough, he was ordained as a minister and upon his return to Tientsin, married a fellow missionary (of Canadian parentage), Florence Mackenzie in 1934.

In 1937 he was sent to Siaochang where his brother Rob was stationed, and worked as a business manager in the London Mission Hospital alongside Dr. Kenneth McAll. During the '30s China was very dangerous, and as a result someone once offered his co-worker a pistol for protection. Dr. McAll recalls Liddell's reaction to the offer: "Eric, who happened to be there at the time shouted, 'Don't touch it! If you have that in your pocket you will depend on it rather than God and I would refuse to travel with you'."

After another doctor became available for assistance to the hospital, Liddell left Siaochang and returned to Tientsin in 1941. During this time it had become so dangerous due to the conflict between the Japanese and Chinese, that the British government was advising that all British nationals leave the country, thus pregnant Florence, and their two daughters, Patricia and Heather, left for Canada. Eric stayed on in Tientsin and in 1943 he was interned by the Japanese in Weihsien internment camp (a prisoner-of-war camp that held up to 2,000 prisoners in a space of only 150 by 200 yards).

Conditions were worse than poor, with typhoid, dysentery and malaria prevalent throughout the camp, and the sole form of nutrition being bread presented in several different ways. The only 'luxury' afforded were beds made out of bits of wood with a mattress on top.

Upon arrival people were required to fill in forms as to ascertain their specific skills and qualifications in order for certain jobs to be assigned accordingly. Liddell was assigned to be a science teacher, sports co-ordinator and a roll call warden for certain blocks.

Amongst his defined jobs, Liddell was an unofficial pastor, leading Bible studies mainly on St. Paul's letter in 1 Corinthians 13, and the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7. Fellow intern Dr. Norman Cliff recalls Liddell's passionate speech on the Matthew 5-7: "Read the Sermon on the Mount over and over again, ponder its meaning and apply it to your daily life. Do not try to explain it away, do not dilute its meaning but face up to its challenge."

As a result of the tight conditions of the camp, tension was rife between people of different denominations. Dr. Cliff remembers Liddell's amiable and honourable character as being accepted amongst all denominations with ease. Not only was he an encouragement to his fellow believers, but he was a helping hand for those in a worse condition within the camp.

He was even seen performing chores for a prostitute and other chronically ill people without expecting anything in return. His loving and benevolent character masked the pain he suffered for quite some time until one day in January 1945 he was taken to the camp hospital. He had been suffering from headaches and fatigue along with the constant pain of being separated from his family.

One day in mid-February, after having been in hospital for some weeks, Liddell sat up and wrote an overly optimistic letter to wife Florence, saying that after a month in hospital he was feeling much better. After writing the letter, he said to his friend Annie Buchan, "It's full surrender", and within an hour, he had passed away.

Fellow intern Dr. David J. Mitchell recalls seeing Liddell the day before he passed away, "...he was walking slowly under the trees near the camp hospital beside the open space where he had taught us children to play basketball and rounders. As usual, he had a smile for everyone, especially for us children." He died without having ever seen his third daughter, Maureen.

The funeral was physical proof of the following and admirers Liddell had acquired throughout his life, through his love, assistance, and acceptance of everyone. The church was extremely crowded and people who weren't ever seen at Sunday services attended the funeral. He was buried in a little cemetery in the Japanese part of the prison where others who had died during their internment, were buried.

An honour guard consisting of children from Weihsien and Chefoo schools was created in honour of the Scottish missionary and athlete. Jim Taylor (who later became General Director of the Overseas Missionary Fellowship) and Steve Metcalf (an OMF missionary in Japan for nearly 40 years) were also present at the funeral, with Steve having earlier received from the man himself, the priceless gift of Eric Liddell's running shoes. Documented as being patched with tape and tied together with string, the humble honour of this invaluable token can hardly be imagined.

Eric Liddell has been claimed as a Chinese hero, with many holding him as the first Chinese Olympic gold medallist. A memorial made from granite already stands in a courtyard nearby in remembrance of the Olympic hero. Plans are in progress to create a bigger memorial for Liddell and according to a BBC News article, the building where Liddell died is to be transferred into a museum with a reconstruction of his prison room and a wax model of Liddell himself inside – aptly stated in the article as being a "remarkable honour for a Christian missionary in a Communist country".

These monuments seem a small acknowledgement for a man who sacrificed much and became a symbol of hope and encouragement for many worldwide, but perhaps the biggest monument to his life as yet is the Oscar winning film Chariots of Fire inspired by his life. And, as the famous theme music runs through your mind, perhaps you can see his small, stocky body, leaning forward with his impressively strong chin held out in his trademark fashion, as he crosses the finish line.