Eric Liddell: Something Greater Than Gold

Chapter 1
Doing the Impossible

Crack! The sound of the starter’s pistol echoed around Colombes Stadium. The final of the 400 meters had begun. Eric Liddell lunged forward. The spikes on his black leather running shoes gripped the rolled cinder surface of the track. Puffs of gray cinders burst from under his shoes with each stride. Eric was running in the outside lane, the worst to be in. Running next to him was the American, Horatio Fitch, the favorite to win the gold medal. Fitch had set a new world record for the distance in his heat to qualify for the final. Running next to Fitch was Joseph Imbach, the Swiss runner who had also broken the world record in his qualifying heat. Everyone expected the battle for the gold medal to be between these two men. The cheers of the crowd rose in anticipation.

As the field of runners streaked down the back straightaway from the starting line, though, it was Eric Liddell in the lead. As the runners rounded the corner and passed the 200-meter mark, the midway point of the race, Eric had run the first half of the race in the amazingly fast time of 22.2 seconds.

Eric could hear the feet of the other runners stomping against the cinder track as the men strained to catch up to him. The crowd could see that Guy Butler, the other British runner in the race, was three meters behind Eric. Horatio Fitch was also gaining fast, but with no time to look back, Eric threw all his effort into running.

As the crowd realized that Eric Liddell was not falling back into third or fourth place as expected, it became strangely silent, too stunned to cheer. Those who knew anything about running techniques just shook their heads. A runner couldn’t sprint for the whole 400 meters of the race. To them it was obvious: Eric Liddell was a 100-meter runner who had no idea how to run a 400-meter race. A runner who sprints from the start in such a race, as though he’s running in a 100-meter dash, will use up all his energy and have no stamina for a final burst of speed at the end of the race. The crowd waited silently for Eric to fade.

By the time Eric had rounded the bend, Horatio Fitch had closed to within two meters of taking the lead. Eric could sense his presence. Believing that Fitch was making his move on Eric, the crowd burst to life again.

Just as everyone thought that Horatio Fitch was about to pass Eric, a gasp went through the crowd. It couldn’t be. It was impossible. No one had ever run the 400 meters like this before. But it was true. Just when the crowd was sure that he was fading, Eric threw back his head and flung his arms about like a drowning man. With that, he mustered a burst of speed and pulled away from Horatio Fitch. Instead of slowing down, Eric was running the second half of the race faster than the first. Sensing an upset, the crowd erupted into cheers for Eric. Many frantically waved him on with Union Jacks.

As he reached the end of the home straight, Eric threw himself forward across the finish line five meters ahead of Horatio Fitch! He took several more steps to slow down and then collapsed into the arms of the British coach. Eric sucked air into his lungs as fast and as hard as he could as he lay on his back on the track.

Thundering applause erupted throughout the stadium. The noise was deafening. It was reported later that it could be heard all over Paris. Eric Liddell had done the impossible, and the crowd had watched him do it. Now the people wanted to raise their voices and celebrate the win with him.

Finally, after several minutes, the noised died down enough to hear the official announcement that Eric not only had won the race but also had set a new world record. Eric Liddell had broken the old record by two-tenths of a second. The crowd went wild again.

Some of the members of the British Olympic team made their way onto the field and hoisted Eric onto their shoulders. They carried him along the track until they were in front of the official box where the Prince of Wales, the future King of England, stood cheering. The prince acknowledged Eric, who in turn bowed his head to him as a mark of respect.

All around Eric, people were cheering, waving Union Jacks, shaking Eric’s hand, and patting the runner on the back. Emotions surged inside Eric’s exhausted body. Eric felt proud and happy all at once. He smiled to himself in satisfaction and marveled at how different the scene was from anything he’d ever dreamed of as a small boy growing up on the coastal plain of northern China.

Chapter 2
Going Home

Four-year-old Eric Liddell had a wonderful life. He lived at a large London Missionary Society compound in Siao Chang on the Great Plain of North China. Eric, along with his six-year-old brother Robert and Jenny, his three-year-old sister, Eric had free run of the place. There were four large houses inside the compound walls, plus two schools, one for boys and one for girls, and a church. Eric’s father, James Liddell, preached in the church, and his mother, Mary, helped teach school. As a nurse, Eric’s mother also took care of many of the local children when they were sick.

Sometimes visitors to the Siao Chang compound thought little Eric was a Chinese boy. Eric dressed in a blue padded jacket and pants like the rest of the village children, and he chatted away to his friends in perfect Chinese. But when he took his cap off, it was obvious he wasn’t Chinese. Despite his local dress, he had straight blond hair and big blue eyes. “The laddie has fair Scottish coloring,” his mother would tell visitors as she patted Eric on the head and sent him back outside to play with his friends or his pet goat.

Eric often heard his parents talk about the hills of “bonnie Scotland,” and he tried to imagine what the country would be like. His mother said it never got too cold or too hot in Scotland, unlike China, where it fell below freezing in winter and soared to 110 degrees Fahrenheit in summer. She also told Eric of huge areas there, as far as a person could see, with not a house or farm in sight. Eric found this hard to believe, especially when he clambered up on top of the six-foot-high mud wall that surrounded the mission compound. The Great Plain of North China surrounded Siao Chang, and across the plain lived ten million people in ten thousand villages dotted close together. Stretched between the villages was an almost endless patchwork of wheat and millet fields divided by snaking muddy streams and waterways that had been used for centuries to irrigate the land. Eric couldn’t look anywhere around this landscape and not see people, houses, and farms. It was the only landscape he had known in his young life, and it was very hard for him to imagine anything else.

Eric’s parents had come to China before Eric was born. James Liddell arrived in China as a missionary in 1898, and soon afterwards, his fiance, Mary, joined him there. The two were married in Shanghai in 1899 and then sent by the London Missionary Society (LMS) to work in Mongolia. Soon after arriving in Mongolia, though, a terrible rebellion broke out in China. A group of men calling themselves the “League of Righteous and Harmonious Fists,” or “Boxers” for short, stirred up hatred among the Chinese people toward all foreigners.

The Boxers believed that they possessed magical powers. They thought that their bodies could stop bullets and cannonballs and that they could ward off sword blows with their bare arms. Many of the uneducated peasants in China believed the Boxers and were terrified of them.

The Boxer Rebellion erupted in June 1900. Chinese people were encouraged to rise up and kill all the foreigners who had humiliated their country for so long. The Boxers especially wanted foreign missionaries killed because they were bringing another religion to the people of China. Many people did join with the Boxers and killed missionaries, along with many Chinese Christians. The Boxer Rebellion started when the German ambassador to Peking was assassinated. By the time it was finally put down by a combined force of twenty thousand foreign troops, two hundred missionaries, including women and children, and over thirty thousand Chinese Christians had been killed.

Mongolia was one of the first places the Boxers attacked. James Liddell had fled the mission station there with Mary, who was expecting their first child. The couple had left all their belongings behind except for a small suitcase of clothes. In fear for their lives at every turn, they made the long and tortuous journey south several hundred miles to Shanghai. There they waited at the LMS compound before moving on to Tientsin. While waiting for the rebellion to die down, James Liddell traveled back to Mongolia to see what had become of the mission and the Chinese Christians he had been forced to leave behind. He found the mission station destroyed and the local Christians in hiding. The area still wasn’t safe for missionaries to return to.

When James Liddell reported his findings to the London Missionary Society, the society sent the Liddells to one of its established mission centers in Siao Chang, a small village in the central area of the Great Plain. By then, the couple had two sons. On January 16, 1902, eighteen months after the birth of her first son, Robert, Mary Liddell had given birth to a blond-haired, blue-eyed, dimple-chinned baby boy. The baby had been named Eric Henry Liddell. The baby was to have been called Henry Eric Liddell until a missionary friend pointed out that the initials spelled “H. E. L.” James Liddell quickly switched his new son’s first names around.

Even though the Boxer Rebellion had been put down, in many parts of China, feelings of hatred and anger towards foreigners still simmered below the surface. This was not the case in Siao Chang, however. The Chinese Christians who lived there were eager to welcome missionaries back. When Eric’s parents arrived at the compound for the first time, a banner was hanging over the village gate. It read “Chung Wai I Chai,” which James and Mary Liddell knew meant “Chinese and foreigners, all one home.” How glad the Liddells were to finally be somewhere safe.

After James and Mary Liddell had been in China for nine years, the London Missionary Society decided the family should return to Scotland for a year’s break, or furlough, as it was officially called.

“We’re going home,” Robert yelled as he raced out the door into the courtyard where Eric and Jenny were playing with a new batch of kittens.

“Home?” questioned five-year-old Eric. “We are home.”

“No, our other home, silly, to Scotland,” replied his older and wiser brother, who had never actually been there.

That afternoon, the Liddell family began to pack and prepare for their trip home. Several days later, the family made their way from Siao Chang to Tientsin, where they caught a boat to Shanghai. Eric had been with his family to the beach before, but he had never been on a boat. He stood in amazement and peered over the side until Tientsin disappeared completely from view. In Shanghai, they boarded a German steamer for the six-week voyage from Shanghai to Southampton. After arriving in England, the family caught a train to London, where James and Mary Liddell met with the leaders of the London Missionary Society and gave them a detailed report of their work. Then they climbed aboard another train for the final leg of the trip home to Scotland.

As the train rolled into Scotland, Eric’s eyes grew big as he looked out the window. There was so much empty land. Sheep grazed among castle ruins, and the wide green valleys were dotted with small stone cottages. Everything delighted Eric; Scotland was so different from China, and so different from anything he had imagined. Finally, the train drew to a stop at the village of Dryman on the shores of Loch Lomond. James Liddell announced to his young son that they were finally “home.”

Eric loved Dryman. His parents rented a house there, and he was able to explore the same places his father had explored as a child. Eric’s grandfather owned a small grocery store in Dryman. It didn’t take Eric long to figure out that he liked the aniseed balls, licorice allsorts, and English toffees sold in the store. Grandfather Liddell also ran a side business transporting people and packages to and from the railway station. The village and the station were about a mile apart. Many times Eric would perch on top of the horse-drawn wagon with his grandfather, looking importantly down on the world as they rode to the station to meet the train.