China’s love for Chariot’s Of Fire hero Eric Liddell

A clutch of elderly Chinese pensioners, three Canadian women in their 70s and 80s and a British film star gathered in the courtyard of a school in the obscure industrial town of Weifang on Monday to witness the unveiling of a statue of a running man.

Statue of Scottish Olympic running hero Eric Liddel

The athlete immortalised in bronze in China is Eric Liddell, the legendary Olympian whose achievements were marked in the 1981 fi lm Chariots Of Fire.

The Canadians were there because Liddell was their father and the presence of the actor, Joseph Fiennes, was because he plays the Scottish sprinter in The Last Race, a new movie about his life to be released in March.

But why would the Chinese authorities be interested in venerating such a man? The truth is that Liddell is as much Chinese as he is Scottish.

Born in Tianjin in 1902 he went on to spend more than half his life in the country as an evangelical Christian missionary. And so while he is known as the Flying Scotsman in the UK in China he is remembered as the country’s first Olympic champion.

It is rare indeed that a person has the good fortune to meet a saint but he came as close to it as anyone I have ever known

Eight years before Beijing sent its first team to the Olympics, Liddell won a memorable gold medal in the 400m as part of the British team in the Paris Games of 1924. His victory was all the more poignant because he had been forced to pull out of his best event the 100m as soon as the timetable for the Games was announced.

Liddell, the son of Scottish missionaries, was such a devout Christian that he would not countenance breaking the Sabbath to take part in heats held on a Sunday. Aware this meant he wouldn’t be able to participate in the qualifying rounds for the sprint Liddell devoted all his energy to training for the 400m.

As he took to the starting blocks for the final a masseur with the American Olympic team is said to have slipped a piece of paper into his hand with the Book Of Samuel quotation: “Those who honour me I will honour.”

The fates were certainly on Liddell’s side that day.

He not only won but broke the existing Olympic and world records with a time of 47.6 seconds.

His sporting success did not divert him from his chosen course however and within a year he travelled to China to take up a posting as a missionary teacher in Tianjin’s Anglo-Chinese College, a school popular with the local elite.

The missionaries believed that by teaching Christian values to the children of the wealthy they might promote them later when they reached positions of influence.

Liddell also got involved in the sporting curriculum and even advised on the construction of Tianjin’s Minyuan Stadium.

He proposed an exact copy of the then football ground of Chelsea FC, said to have been his favourite running venue in the UK. He met and married a Canadian woman called Florence, also a child of missionaries, and they had daughters Patricia and Heather.

When Florence was pregnant with their third, war broke out and, with the Imperial Japanese Army sweeping through China, Liddell insisted she and the girls leave for Canada .

Typically Liddell refused to leave his beloved China in its hour of need and was interned and placed in a camp in Weifang, where he dedicated himself to the welfare of fellow inmates.

One of these, Langdon Gilkey, a 19-year-old American who went on to became a prominent theologian, said of Liddell: “Often I would see him bent over a chessboard or a model boat or directing some sort of square dance – absorbed, weary and interested, pouring all of himself into this effort to capture the imagination of penned-up youths.

“He was overflowing with good humour and love for life with enthusiasm and charm.

“It is rare indeed that a person has the good fortune to meet a saint but he came as close to it as anyone I have ever known.”

Liddell even turned down the opportunity to return to Britain after the prime minister Winston Churchill brokered a deal for his release. True to form Liddell arranged for a pregnant woman from the camp to take his place. His tireless efforts on behalf of both the children of the camp and the older generation took its toll to such an extent that in early 1945 he had to be admitted to the camp hospital.

A few days later he sat up in bed and wrote to his wife in Canada: “… was carrying too much responsibility… had slight nervous breakdown… much better after a month in hospital. Special love to you and the children, Eric”.

But in fact he was not much better. He had a brain tumour and within an hour of writing the note he was gone.

His friend and colleague Anne Buchan reported that he uttered the words, “It’s full surrender”, before lapsing into a coma from which he would never recover. He was just 43.

via China’s love for Chariot’s Of Fire hero Eric Liddell | History | News | Daily Express.

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