At a time of year when everyone is talking of resolutions and dreaming of self-improvement, I can think of no better book to read than For the Glory by Duncan Hamilton. I picked it up on January 1st and did not put it down until late in the evening when I’d finished the last page. I needed a large box of tissues to get through it all but it is the perfect book to inspire with resolutions that truly matter. Ignore the advertisements urging you to make 2017 the year you get rich or thin or ultra-fit. Make it instead the year you become a passionate, committed, generous person. Make it the year you become more like the book’s subject, Eric Liddell:
Valorous lives like his – which must be calculated in terms of value rather than length – encourage us to make our own lives better somehow. In his case that’s because everything he did was selfless, each kind act bespoke for someone else’s benefit. He believed entirely that those to whom “much is given” are obliged to give “much in return” – and should do so without complaining about it. In adhering to this, he never demanded grand happiness or great comfort for himself. He grasped only for the things that mattered to him: worthwhile work and the care of his family. He’d once – on that hot July evening in Paris – grasped for an Olympic title as well, knowing nonetheless even as he won it that the glory of gold was nothing in his world compared to the glory of God.
For those who do not remember the film Chariots of Fire (the famously-scored 1981 Oscar-winner about British runners competing at the 1924 Paris Olympics), a brief introduction: Liddell was in his last year of a Bachelor of Science degree at the University of Edinburgh when the games were run. The son of missionaries and planning to go into missionary work himself, he believed the Sabbath was a day for God and not for running. At the Paris Olympics, the events for his signatures distance – the 100 meters, both individual and relay – involved running on a Sunday. Despite pressure from the British Olympic Association and the press, he instead chose to run the 400 meter individual “only because no other replacement distance was feasible for him.” It was a distance he had little experience with but he ran it gloriously and won. It is a wonderful story but, as Hamilton makes clear, it was by no means the most dramatic or admirable episode in Liddell’s eventful life.
Eric Liddell was born in China in 1902 and died there a short – but extraordinarily full – 43 years later. His father, a missionary, and mother, a nurse, arrived there just as the anti-Christian Boxer Rebellion began. The first few years of their married life were ones lived in fear, knowing how vulnerable they were: more than 250 missionaries, Hamilton reports, were killed in the conflict, along with more than 30,000 Chinese Christians. The situation in China would not noticeably improve during their lifetime or that of their second son, Eric. And yet the family was devoted to their work there.
Eric and his elder brother Rob were sent to England to attend boarding school when very young and went years without seeing the rest of their family. But despite the separation, the family remained remarkably close, all looking forward to the day when they would be reunited in China. From the age of eight or nine, Eric knew he wanted to be a teacher-missionary and follow in his father’s footsteps.
What made Liddell so inspiring throughout his life was his concern for others. Although he was deeply competitive when race time arrived, even as a very young man he took time out before races to put those around him at ease:
…there are countless anecdotes of his sportsmanship toward fellow competitors that sound a bit like the brightest boy in class allowing everyone else to copy his homework. In competition he’d lend his trowel, used to dig starting holes, to runners who lacked one. He once offered to give up the precious inside lane on the track, swapping it with the runner drawn unfavorably on the outside. On a horribly cold afternoon he donated his royal blue university blazer to a rival, freezing in only a singlet and shorts – even though it meant shivering himself. On another occasion he noticed the growing discomfort of an Indian student, utterly ignored before an event. He interrupted his own preparations to seek him out; their conversation went on until the starter called them both to the line. This was typical of Liddell. He’d engage anyone he thought was nervous or uncertain, and listen when the inexperienced sought advice on a technical aspect of sprinting. He’d share what he knew before the bang of the pistol pitted them against each other.
When success came at the Olympics in 1924, it came with countless opportunities. But rather than appear in advertisements or make paid appearances, rather than put out a book or write a newspaper column, Liddell rebuffed the offers that came his way. All except the offers to speak. Liddell had started preaching while at university, his sporting successes bringing in audiences who might otherwise shy away from religious meetings, and his Olympic success made it possible for him to pack the largest halls available. To these listeners, in an easy, conversational manner he could share his Christian belief and the virtues he believed we must all work towards each day: “patience, kindness, generosity, humility, courtesy, unselfishness, good temper, gentleness, and sincerity.” He believed in striving for perfection, in faith and in sport, and that there was honour in doing your best even if you didn’t achieve what you had been striving for.
With a university degree and an Olympic medal to his name, Liddell was happy to leave Scotland behind and return to the country he always considered his home: China. Here, he began his work as a science and sports teacher at the Anglo-Chinese College in Tientsin (now Tianjin). Though logically he knew the move to China had put an end to his competitive running, he continued to train and occasionally competed in smaller meets. But there would be no more Olympics for him. From now on, his life was devoted to God and China and, with time, his wife and daughters.
China in the 1920s and 1930s was a perilous place to be. The country was divided in a bitter civil war and further torn apart by the Japanese invasion. Millions died, anti-Christian feeling was high, and no place outside of the cities seemed safe. Liddell lost close friends to absolutely pointless violence and fellow missionaries were killed for their religion. Which is why, when Liddell finally was offered a rural missionary position after years at the college, the missionary society decided his wife and children could not come with him. It was work he loved, saying “I have more joy and freedom in the work that I have ever experienced before”, but the separation from his family was bitter. He could still see them when he came into town for supplies but it was hardly the partnership he and his wife had hoped for. When his wife became pregnant with their third child in 1941, they decided it was too dangerous for her and the children to remain in China and so she and their daughters left for Canada, hoping one day Eric would join them. That day never came.
Liddell lived the last years of his life in a cramped internment camp. As was typical of him, he became the most depended on member of the community, the one who would do anything and who had time for anyone. As Hamilton describes it, “Liddell was officially the math and science teacher. He was unofficially everything else.” He was particularly loved by the children at the camp, who called him “Uncle Eric”, and for whom he organized sports days – including races he would run in (with a considerable handicap, to give the other runners a chance). And it was at Weihsien camp that he reconsidered his position on the Sabbath: to help keep the children from getting into trouble on Sundays (with no other ways to channel their energy they had begun fighting), he agreed to organise sports on Sunday afternoons. This was the so-called “Continental” half-day Sabbath that the British Olympic committee had tried in vain, so many years before, to convince him made it acceptable for him to run the 100m on a Sunday. As one of the boys from the camp remembers “everything he did was for the greater good, including that”.
There were many ways to die under the Japanese during the war but Liddell’s end was not of their making: he developed a brain tumour that triggered a series of strokes. He died in early 1945, at the age of 43, surrounded by people who loved him and after a lifetime of service to others.
Hamilton has done a wonderful job telling Liddell’s story and it is one that deserves to be known. I don’t share Liddell’s faith but you do not need to in order to recognize his value and his exceptional strength of character. He was a man who was rare in his own times, who is rare still, and who should always serve as an inspiration.