By Neil Earle
With the games of the XXXI Olympiad in Rio absorbing the admiration and attention of the world, China and the United States compete with each other in the hunt for medals. Few are aware that the man saluted as “China’s first ever Olympian” was a Christian missionary and athlete named Eric Liddell.
Liddell’s story was a big part of the inspiring 1981 movie “Chariots of Fire” which covered the 1924 Paris Olympics and the individual struggles of two of Great Britain’s finest athletes – the Jewish outsider Harold Abrahams and the Scottish Presbyterian, Eric Liddell.
Over the years much has been written about their stories and their eventual triumphs on and off the field, but in Liddell’s case his life after the Olympics was as eventful as the run-up to the 1924 games. “Chariots of Fire” went on to win four Academy Awards and got most of the 1924 events right – though Liddell refused to run qualifying heats for the 100-meter dash back in UK, his speciality, because they were on the Lord’s Day, Sunday.
This was well-dramatized except Liddell did not make the decision out of the blue on the way to Paris (as the movie has it) but had known about it months in advance and still stuck to his guns re the 100. In the end he takes a teammate’s spot in the 400 meters and sets a new Olympic record. That much was true but the portrayal of his sister, Jennie, as being opposed to his running – choose ministry or track – was inaccurate and demeaning, we are told.
Nevertheless Christians in general rallied around the movie and saw it as a refreshing change of pace to Hollywood’s usual fare. Here were two motivated young men facing obstacles traced to their religious belief. Most people remember the “Chariots” scene where the American runner Jackson Scholtze slips Liddell a paper with 1 Samuel 2:30 written on it – “Them that honor me I will honor.” This prefaced Liddell’s record-setting clip of 47.6 seconds, a pace that stood for the next twelve years.
The fascinating thing about Liddell is that he was born in China about fifty miles southeast of Beijing to missionary parents. Soon his family moved to Siaochang about 100 miles northwest of Beijing. At the age of six he was sent back to school in England where he won fame as the Michael Phelps or Usain Bolt of his day. In 1923 he set the Scottish record for the 100 yard dash – 9.7 seconds. It lasted till 1958. He also served as cricket and rugby champion at various schools and colleges. In 1925, after Paris, he returned to China to teach in his father’s Christian school at Tianjin and then Xiaozhang.
In 1926 Eric beat the French and Japanese Olympic runners in exhibition 200 and 400 meter races at South Manchurian Railway. Pre-Communist China, seething with unrest and threats from Japan at the time, celebrated him as a home-born athlete gaining success on the world stage.
Along the way, Eric designed the first sports stadium in Tianjin – Minyan Stadium. This was while enjoying his life as a teacher of science in the Anglo-Chinese College. He was ordained a minister in 1932 and married a Canadian girl on his first furlough in 1934. They had three children, all girls.
Though his students and parishioners adored him, the shadows were slowly lengthening on his life and times. Japan occupied Manchuria in 1932 and by 1937 was at war with China. The Japanese steadily moved in on Eric’s mission station. In 1941 Eric moved to Shaochang after sending his family back to Canada. He would never see them again. The British government advised all British nationals to leave China but Eric stayed at his post. After Pearl Harbor (1941) the Japanese pushed further into China, finally rounding up Eric and his mission workers and placing them in Weihsen Internment Camp, the largest in Asia, between Beijing and Shanghai.
According to a number of eyewitness accounts, one by the noted theologian Langdon Gilkey, Eric was a tower of strength in the camp, “overflowing with good humor and love for life.” He was especially committed to the young people and even gave his famous Olympic running shoes to a young lad without foot-ware. Eric’s Christian faith burned most brightly when he instructed his fellow-prisoners not to hate the Japanese but to forgive and pray for them.
He organized soccer matches and hockey games for the camp – and therein hangs an unusual postscript to his Olympic legend. Eric still refused to play sports on Sunday, such was his Christian commitment. One day, however, he learned of children being hurt on the sports field because he was not there to referee. So he, the man who had defied an Empire and the world’s Olympic authorities, laced up his togs and took the field. The Sabbath was important but not as much as protecting children from getting hurt.
I943 turned into 1944 and life in the camp degenerated. Food and supplies were scarce. Eric berated rich prisoners who could bargain with guards for extra supplies and cajoled them into sharing with their fellows. Finally his name appeared at the top of a list for POW exchanges that was negotiated on his behalf by Winston Churchill himself but Eric refused to leave. He gave his place instead to a pregnant woman and stayed on to serve the internees. His health began to fail and he learned of his third daughter’s birth not long before dying on February 21, 1945. Cause? A brain tumor brought on by exhaustion and malnutrition.
As the movie “Chariots of Fire” states at the end, “All Scotland mourned.”
When Scottish runner Andy Wells won gold in the 100 meters at Moscow in 1980 he said, “This is for Eric Liddell.” That same year in Edinburgh the Eric Liddell Sports Center was opened. In 1991 Edinburgh University erected a granite headstone to Eric inscribed with the words of Isaiah 40:31, They shall mount up with wings as eagles, they shall run and not be faint – a text quoted in the Movie.
But his fame had far outreached his parent’s home country.
Eric was Chinese-born and as part of keeping the memory of the horrible suffering from 1937 to 1945 alive they have remembered their country’s first Olympian.
In Tianjin the house in which he was born is preserved as a building of historic significance.
At Weihsien Internment Camp a stone marker was erected in his memory.
Chinese TV networks have produced documentaries of his life, especially at Olympic time which moved NBC to retell his story to a worldwide audience at the Beijing Olympics of 2008.
A 24-hour movie channel in China purchased the rights to “Chariots of Fire” in 1990 and has shown it repeatedly to as many as 850 million people with each airing drowning the station in replies and e-mails.
A biography titled Running the Race by John Keddie was recently published in Mandarin Chinese and distributed across China. This is a rare honor for a Western publication in Communist China.
According to a written report and eyewitness, Eric Liddell’s last words were “It’s complete surrender.” Could anything be more typical of the man who ran both of his races with joy (Hebrews 12:1)?