Posted by Craig Borlase on 11 September 2017

To my mind Eric Liddell always seemed to be a cross between James Herriot and one of The Proclaimers. The Flying Scotsman may have been fast, but – based on hazy recollections of my teenage viewing of Chariots Of Fire – he wasn’t quite as exciting as the chap with the broad-bowled champagne glasses perched on the hurdles and those immaculately pressed shirts. 

I had plenty of opportunity to revise my opinion in the run-up to this summer’s London Games. Chariots Of Fire has been essential viewing for the sport-loving Christian over recent months, and Lord Puttnam’s film portrays Liddell as a man of integrity, strength and admirable determination.

Yet if you ask Patricia Russell Liddell, it seems that there is far more to her father’s story than the 124 minutes depicts.

A month before the start of London 2012, I meet Patricia at the end of a church service in south London, close to the boarding school for sons of missionaries to which her father had been sent as a boy. A Canadian citizen, she was at the end of a two-week-long tour of the UK where she had given many interviews about her father’s life. Unsurprisingly she had heard the same questions and faced the same assumptions about her father many times over. 

“Of course there are some inaccuracies,” she explained, issuing her words with the caution and care of an archer rather than the power of a sprinter. “There are bound to be. Sometimes people seem to idolize him. My father would be horrified to think that. It would be against his whole principles.”

Of all the things we do to the people we idolize, one of the strangest is the way in which we rewrite their history to fit our own purposes. Patricia explained that this was precisely what some have done to Eric Liddell. “I find it very distressing that some sections of Christianity have grabbed hold of my father and presented him as their kind of faith. I know he would not run on a Sunday, but that did not make him stiff, pious, rigid or unforgiving. He lived a Christ-like life. He was a good, good man. He was a generous spirit.”

Even the briefest of internet searches reinforces that assessment. Eric Liddell may have been an incredible athlete who won honours on both the rugby field and the athletics track, but he dedicated his life to his work as a missionary. Literally.

Born to missionary parents in China, Patricia’s father was educated in both England and Scotland. He found fame for his faith and won his Olympic gold for the 400 metres (as well as a bronze for the 200 metres) in the summer before he graduated from Edinburgh University. A year later he returned to North China where he served as a missionary for what would turn out to be his final twenty years. 

Life in China in the 1930s was increasingly dangerous, too dangerous for Patricia, her mother and two sisters to remain there. In 1941 they left and returned to her mother’s native Canada, leaving her father to work alongside his brother behind Japanese lines. His final two years were spent held at Weihsien Internment Camp, where he died in 1945 from an inoperable brain tumour.

And yet, said Patricia “he must not be idolized. He was open-minded. He was very forgiving and very understanding of people who thought differently or who had got into serious trouble.

“I know that in the camp there were all sorts of people who were herded up; businessmen, missionaries, a prostitute. He set up some shelves for her. She said he was the only person who gave her something and didn’t want anything in return from her. He did not judge her, he saw her as a child of God.

“I don’t want him claimed as somebody’s different kind of religion. He lived his Christian principles.”

Perhaps this is the truly inspiring element of Eric Liddell’s story; the sight of those Christian principles fully lived out. Not only did he have the freedom to ‘know God’s pleasure’ as he ran, Eric Liddell was also free to serve others even when innocently held behind bars. It is said that he resisted cliques within the camp, helped the elderly, taught the young and even gave up an opportunity to leave the camp under a prisoner exchange so that a pregnant woman might walk free. 

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