Eric Liddell’s faith is given a more accurate portrayal in For the Glory than it got in Chariots of Fire. Register file photo

Faith inspired gold medallist well beyond the track

By  Simon Appolloni, Catholic Register Special
  • July 30, 2016

Most people would know the story of Eric Liddell from the 1981 film Chariots of Fire, where his character was featured along with his Olympic “rival” Harold Abrahams. No less compelling than the Oscar-winning movie — though taking less creative licence — For the Glory portrays a more comprehensive and historically accurate Liddell by exploring the role his faith played throughout his life.

Duncan Hamilton contrasts the two major triumphs that form Liddell’s legacy — his gold medal in the 400 metres at the 1924 Paris Olympics in world record time and his extraordinary service to others as a missionary in China.

However much he loved to run, and to win at running, true glory for Liddell was in his desire to serve God. And it showed through his actions.

Liddell was supposed to run in the 100-metre race in Paris. However, it was scheduled on a Sunday. Being the Sabbath, Liddell, a Protestant with Evangelical resolve, refused to run. His claim to fame might have ended then and there had he not received the opportunity to run the 400 metres, scheduled on another day.

This switch is arguably what makes his running all the more glorious. Trained as a sprinter, no one expected Liddell to win a longer race. Despite this, Liddell actually sprinted the whole 400 metres, shocking the entire world.

He could have taken the path of fame and fortune after his triumph in Paris. Again, demonstrating through his actions where true glory lay, Liddell declined personal stardom to teach in a local school in China. A Scot, Liddell was actually returning to his country of birth. He was born the son of missionary parents who served in China.

Hamilton portrays Liddell’s life as truly radiating the splendour of the Sermon on the Mount, which Liddell had considered to be the keystone of his faith. Never judgmental, always kind and upbeat, Liddell was a saintly man who braved tremendous danger in war-ravaged China for the good of others, never himself.

The ultimate test of his faith came in the final years of his life. Seeing the Japanese gain control over much of China, he sent his beloved wife Florence with his family off to Canada. Florence was then pregnant with their third child. Remaining with the Chinese poor whom he also loved, he was soon forced into a work camp by the Japanese along with thousands of other Westerners.

Liddell eventually died of a brain tumour while captive, but not before proving to fellow captives his unconditional love for others — even his enemies.

It is significant that this account of Liddell’s life journey is written by an award-winning sports writer. Not only is Hamilton’s writing style very fluid, his account of the races — interspersed with facts from sports history — are engaging and amazingly detailed, just as one would expect from reading the sports page.

Hamilton amuses readers with accounts of earlier pre-scientific — and odd by our standards — Olympic training schemes: from smoking in order to clear the lungs so as to improve breathing, to taking in a couple of pints of beer to improve one’s stamina!

Hamilton is rightly critical of the London Missionary Society (LMS), which directed Liddell’s work in China, though not always with his best interest in mind. Hamilton is less critical of Liddell himself, however. Liddell’s unflinching and seemingly blind obedience to the LMS’s often unreasonable dictates is puzzling. Did Liddell confuse God’s will with the will of the LMS? Hamilton does not fully deal with this important question about Liddell’s faith.

Shortly before his death in the camp, Liddell confesses to a dear friend that he regretted submitting to the pressures of the LMS, which so often — and ultimately at his death — kept him apart from his beloved wife and their children.

The book is a compelling read, not just because it portrays a marvellous athlete with tremendous integrity. It stirs the mind and conscience of the average sports fan at a point when yet another Olympics, plagued by doping scandals and political intrigues, is upon us. This is a compelling portrait of extraordinary Christian discipleship, lived by a man whose last words before he died were, “It’s complete surrender.”

(Appolloni is editorial director for English language publications at Novalis and lectures in environmental studies at the University of Toronto.)

For the Glory: Olympic Legend Eric Liddell’s Journey of Faith and Survival by Duncan Hamilton. (Random House Canada, hardcover, 388 pages, $24.70).

 

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