Monday, November 3, 2008

Eric Liddell's story to set Chinese hearts racing

(Hat-tip to Sarah Hey at Stand Firm for calling my attention to this wonderful story.)

From the London Telegraph:
Who knows how the Chariots of Fire story is likely to go down in communist China, but we are about to find out. Eric Liddell, or Li Airui as he was known in the Far East, was considered a godly, heroic figure in non-communist China, and now the modern-day Chinese authorities have agreed to let his story of Christian humanity and sporting excellence be told.

By Brendan Gallagher

John Keddie's acclaimed Running the Race, a biography that places Liddell's sporting life in the religious context in which it was lived, has been published in Mandarin and will be launched in China next month - the land where the 1924 Olympic 400 yards champion was born, worked as a missionary and died in a Japanese internment camp.

Getting such a 'western' book, containing so much religious and moral content, past the Communist party censors is rare indeed, but Liddell has always been held in the highest regard in China.

Indeed some of China's Olympic literature lists the Scotsman as China's first Olympic champion, while his part in protecting his 'flock' from the Japanese invasion in 1937 has always been acknowledged by the Chinese.

Following his death in 1945 - he died of a brain tumour - Liddell's remains were removed to the Mausoleum of Martyrs at Shih-Chia-Chuang, 150 miles south-west of Beijing, where China honours 700 selected individuals who made the ultimate sacrifice in the liberation of China from the Japanese.

"The publication of the book in Chinese is a remarkable development, but totally fitting," says Keddie, now a church minister in Skye and a fanatical former athlete and rugby player.

"Eric Liddell loved China. He was born there into a missionary family, spent his early years there and returned to China to serve as a missionary as soon as he had completed his university education in Scotland and won his Olympic gold medal in Paris.

"Long after Paris he ran in all the local races, and I fancy he could have challenged for Olympic gold again in 1928 and 1932.

"But his life was on a different track by then, and he helped build the Mingyuan Athletics Stadium in Tianjin; some claim he used Chelsea's old Stamford Bridge, his favourite running venue, as a rough plan.

"At all times he was a rallying point for the local community when the Japanese invaded. Right to the end he lived by selfless example and when he fell ill, and was offered repatriation by the Chinese, he insisted a pregnant woman take his place," Keddie continued.

"The book has been printed and bound in China and we have published 10,000 initially. Nothing has been altered or sub-edited in translation, though we have unearthed a couple more pictures of his time in China to illustrate those chapters.

"It is a remarkable story, from which ever standpoint Chinese readers choose to read it. There is plenty of sporting content, there is Liddell's Christian faith and life-long convictions and there is his love for China. China has 1.5?billion inhabitants of which we believe there could be as many as 50 million Christians."

For many, playwright and screen writer Colin Welland might actually have missed a trick in Chariots of Fire, with the 'real' story beginning where the film ends. The Scot, then 22, and already capped by Scotland on the wing in the Five Nations, seemingly retired into private life after his gold medal and world record in Paris, not to mention an oft forgotten bronze in the 200 yards. He, of course, did not compete in the 100 yards because the final was on the Sabbath.

After completing a low-key domestic season in 1925, he finished his religious studies and headed back to China the following year. He was only ever seen on these shores again when he returned on long-service leave, or furloughs as they were known.

As well as religious duties, he worked as a science and sports teacher at the Anglo/Chinese College in Tianjin. Liddell lived at 38 Chongqing Dao in Tianjin - formerly known as Cambridge Road - in Tianjin and a plaque still stands to commemorate this fact. He was still fit enough to compete against the visiting French and Japanese Olympic teams in 1928 - he won the 200 and 400 yards - and in 1929 he defeated the German 800 yards world-record holder Otto Peltzer in the 400.

During his first furlough in 1932, Liddell was ordained as a minister of religion. On his return to China he married Florence Mackenzie, the daughter of Canadian missionaries, in Tianjin. According to family legend Liddell courted his future wife by taking her for lunch to the famous Kessling restaurant, which is still open in Tianjin. The couple had three daughters, Patricia, Heather and Maureen.

After the Japanese invasion in 1937 Liddell felt the calling to work full-time as a field missionary in the harsh Siaochang Province, where his brother Robert was a doctor. They had to walk a delicate line diplomatically during a period of civil war between the Communist Red Army and the Nationalists, under Chiang Kai-shek, as well as dealing with escalation of the Sino-Japanese conflict.

In 1938 he heard of a wounded Chinese soldier lying helpless in a temple, 20 miles from the mission hospital. He cycled for 20 miles over rough terrain to get there and then found another injured soldier, who had survived a Japanese execution. He manufactured a makeshift cart to help push both men to the hospital.

In 1941 life in China had become so dangerous that the British Government advised British nationals to leave. Florence and the children left for Canada to stay with her family, while Liddell based himself full-time in Shaochang.

Undeterred, he continued his good works. When the fighting reached Shaochang, the Japanese took over the mission station. In 1943, he was interned at the Weihsien camp with the members of the China Inland Mission. Liddell quickly emerged as the leader at the camp. Food, medicines and other supplies ran dangerously short, but Liddell insisted that eggs and fresh food be smuggled into the camp by a clique of wealthy businessman. During this time he kept himself busy by helping the elderly, teaching Bible classes, arranging games and teaching the children science.

Sunday was the only 'free day' and, despite his famous stance against sport on Sundays, he refereed hockey matches, which had previously disintegrated into free-for-alls.

In his last letter to his wife he talked about suffering a nervous breakdown because of over-work. Winston Churchill negotiated an exchange of prisoners but, typically, Liddell refused to go, giving up his place to a pregnant woman. He died on Feb 21, 1945, five months before liberation.

A fellow internee, Stephen Metcalfe, later wrote of Liddell: "He gave me two things. One was his worn out running shoes, but the best thing he gave me was his baton of forgiveness. He taught me to love my enemies, the Japanese, and to pray for them."

Eric Liddell factfile Born: Jan 16 1902, died Feb 21 1945.
Education: Eltham College and Edinburgh University.
Rugby: Won seven caps for Scotland in the 1922 and 1923 Five Nations.
Athletics: 1924 won the AAA 100 yards in 9.7sec but, because event was scheduled for a Sunday final at the Paris Olympics, he opted for the 440 and 220 yards. Won a bronze in the 220, then took gold in the 440 in 47.6, a world record. 1925, his last domestic season, wins Scottish 440 in 49.2, his last run in Britain.
Career: 1925-45 works as a teacher and missionary in China. 1981 Ian Charleson stars as Liddell in Chariots of Fire, the film won seven Oscars.

(I have reproduced the entire article here just in case it disappears at its original location.)

3 comments:

Eric Liddell Centre said...

Hello

If you are looking for further information about Eric Liddell we maintain an archive of information about him including the original film of him winning the gold medal in 1924 which you can view online.

You can find out more about Eric Liddell on our web site:

http://www.ericliddell.org

Just click on Eric Liddell at the top of the page.

Regards

Gordon Hudson
Eric Liddell Centre

Stephen A. Nelson said...

All right, this is late since I just found this post.

But better late than never.

So, as an editor and writer, I offer some clarifications of details in your story about my hero.

You wrote:
1924 won the AAA 100 yards in 9.7sec but, because event was scheduled for a Sunday final at the Paris Olympics, he opted for the 440 and 220 yards. Won a bronze in the 220, then took gold in the 440 in 47.6, a world record.

But since Olympic events and qualifying events used and still use metric measurements:

Yes, the AAA victory was 100 yards.

But...

Eric was to compete in the 100 metres in the Paris Olympics but he refused to run.

He won a bronze in the 200 metres.

He won gold in the 400 metres.

The distances you gave in yards (220, 440) are are rough equivalents, but not the same.
And the 100 metres is about 110 yards.

The principle applies when you write:

He was still fit enough to compete against the visiting French and Japanese Olympic teams in 1928 - he won the 200 and 400 yards - and in 1929 he defeated the German 800 yards world-record holder Otto Peltzer in the 400.

The races held would have been 200 metres and 400 metres, if Eric were competing against Olympians.

And certainly Peltzer was the record holder in the 800 metres, not the 800 yards.



God is in the details.

Peace.

Stephen A. Nelson said...

Me again. The "God is in the details" guy.

You wrote:
1981 Ian Charleson stars as Liddell in Chariots of Fire, the film won seven Oscars.

Actually, the film may have been nominated for seven Oscars.

But it won "only" four:


Best Picture
Best Screenplay
Best Costumes
Best Original Score


Peace