Hands up all of you who have seen the 1981 movie ‘Chariots of Fire’ with the extraordinarily evocative music by Vangelis. It won four Oscars and a re-mastered version has just been released to coincide with the London Olympics 2012. If you haven’t seen it, I urge you to do so – it is a classic, absolutely brilliant.
The film is based on the two British runners, Eric Liddell and Ben Abrahams and their training, attitudes and eventually their participation in the Paris Olympics 1924. Most people who have heard of Eric Liddell or who have seen the film know that he was a committed Christian who refused to race on Sundays. As the Olympic heat for his race – the 100 metres – was scheduled for a Sunday he refused to run, and nothing and no-one could persuade him otherwise . Instead he ran on a weekday in another event, the 400 meters, a distance for which he had not trained. No-one thought he had a chance. To everyone’s amazement he won the Gold Medal and set a new world record of 47.6 seconds, a record which stood for 12 years. He then ran the 200 meters and won the Bronze medal.
The Paris Olympics were a dramatic episode in his life, however the life he lived after his Olympic glory was even more amazing and even more inspiring.
Eric Liddell was born in China in the city of Tientsin (now Tianjing) in 1902. He was the younger of two sons born to Rev. and Mrs. James Dunlop Liddell who were Scottish missionaries working in China. He learnt to speak Mandarin when just an infant.
He and his older brother were sent to boarding school in Britain and then they went on to Edinburgh University. A natural athlete, Liddell played Rugby Union at international level and was capped 7 times for Scotland in 1922 and 1923 playing in the Five Nations Championship.
Besides playing rugger, Liddell had started running competitively at school and continued whilst at university. Then came the famous situation when having gained a place in the British Olympic team he discovered the timing of his Olympic heat and refused to run as it was the Sabbath, thus losing his place in the 100 metres for which he was favourite – instead he ran the 400 metres and the 200 metres, and the rest is history.
As soon as he graduated from university he went back to China, to Tientsin where he had grown up. He was appointed as a teacher at the Anglo-Chinese School which had predominantly Chinese pupils . He was determined to introduce the Olympian ideals into the lives of young Chinese. He continued to run competitively from time to time and when members of the 1928 French and Japanese Olympic teams attended the South Manchurian Railway celebrations in China in 1928 he won both the 200 and 400 metre races.
Liddell married Florence Mackenzie who was the daughter of Canadian missionaries, and they had three daughters. When the Japanese invaded Manchuria ( the northern part of China) and started moving south the situation became dangerous and in 1941 he persuaded his wife to take their daughters and go back to Canada. It must have been a difficult decision for both of them, and they never met again. He resigned his teaching post and went to join his older brother Robert who was a doctor working in Shaochang, Northern China; there Liddell worked as a missionary.
It was hard in every sense of the word. On one occasion he went out on a bicycle to find and bring back an injured Chinese soldier. When he found the soldier he discovered nearby another, even more badly injured, man. The Japanese had attempted to execute the man but miraculously he had survived. What was Liddell to do? what he did was to use what he had and what he could find locally, and he constructed a crude cart on which he pushed the two injured men for 32 kms until they reached a Chinese Army medical center.
The Japanese advance was relentless and eventually in 1943 their troops reached Tientsin. Local citizens, including Liddell, were interned in Weifang camp. Whilst there, Liddell taught maths and physics to the younger inmates. He also kept morale high by organising and playing sports with the other prisoners, particularly the young ones. Eventually the Japanese authorities offered Churchill a list of names of those who would be released on humanitarian grounds. Eric, now 41 yrs old, was on the list. When he was told of this he immediately had his own name removed and the name of pregnant woman prisoner who had a young child put in his place.
On February 21st 1945, whilst still in the camp, he died of a brain tumour aged 43, five months before the end of the war with Japan. When the war was over the Chinese had his remains removed from the camp and he was buried, with honours, in the Mausoleum of Martyrs at Shijiazhuang, a special site (approx 150 kms south of Beijing) which is dedicated to non-Chinese who gave their lives for the creation of modern China.
An awe-inspiring individual, but so modest, so self-effacing. Born in China he died in China. A true Christian, he lived his life by his beliefs – how many of us can say we are doing the same?
I hate to think what he would make of the London Olympics 2012 with its corporate sponsors, fast food franchises, vast amounts of money being spent on everything from security to landscaping, and special traffic lanes for the Olympic ‘officials’ who don’t want to be associated with us lesser mortals.
Citius, Altius, Fortius is the Olympic motto. Maybe it is time for the Olympics to get back to being what it was originally, a contest of the Fastest, Highest, Strongest in the world, and nothing else.