The Spirit of Eric Liddell

Grant Jarvie

The Spirit of Eric Liddell

The Chinese born Scottish athlete, Eric Liddell story is so in part captured by Zhang Huijie in The Routledge Handbook of Sport in Asia, edited by one of our conference hosts. An account that talks of Liddell making a significant contribution to promoting physical education. the Olympics in modern China and becoming a prestigious sporting icon with a legacy of facilitating sustained cultural communication between China and the UK.

A point that was amplified by the former Chinese Ambassador to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, Liu Xiaoming, when he visited Scotland in 2017.

In his opening address the ambassador talked of the spirit of Eric Liddell a Scottish athlete, interned in a concentration camp in Weifang in the 1940s where he continued to support children during harsh times and where he was referred to by some as “Uncle Eric”.

He went on to suggest that while Liddell’s life was short, what he did was to provide an ode to China-Scotland friendship, co-operation and exchange. The athletes name and story has lived on providing a bridge for potential cultural relations building, a sustainable space for countries to talk to one another.

Charioteer of Fire
Liddell’s journey has been captured not just by the academy including historians from the west and east, political scientists, sociologists but also least we forget the Hollywood Oscar winning film Chariots of Fire.

In 2000 it was reported as being the twelfth ranked top-grossing sports movie of all time with a take of $62 million US dollars.

A film part fact, part fiction depicting vignettes of social class, gender, religion, Olympism, amateurism and professionalism and which revolved around the life story of two British track athletes at the 1924 Paris Olympics, Harold Abrahams (an English Jew) and Eric Liddell depicted as a Scottish evangelical Presbyterian.

For the Glory
Arguably, the most complete account of the life of Eric Liddell is to be found in Duncan Hamilton’s New York Times Bestseller For the Glory. For sure there are many interested stakeholders in the life of Eric Liddell and the narrative that sits alongside this life .

Eric Liddell was born on the 16th of January 1902 in Tientsin (Tianjin) North China. The second son of James and Mary Liddell who were missionaries with the London Mission Society.

Returning to Scotland at the age of five he then attended Eltham College, Blackheath – a school for the children of missionaries. Whilst at school his parents returned to China where his youngest brother Ernest was born in Peking in 1912.

In 1920 Eric joined his older brother Robert at Edinburgh University to read for a BSc in Pure Science and graduating after the Paris Olympics of 1924.

Having launched his athletics career as a student on the grass track of Craiglockhart, Edinburgh in 1921, making his international rugby debut for Scotland one year later Liddell went on to win a gold (440yds) and bronze (220 yds) medal in the 1924 Paris Olympics. Famously the athlete refused to run on a Sunday because of his religious beliefs that Sunday was for God only.

After the Olympics and his graduation, he returned to North China where he served as a teacher and then missionary first in returning to the Anglo-Teaching College in Tientsin (Tianjin) in 1925 and later in Siochana.

In the same year as he returned to Tientsin (Tianjin) he had won three Scottish Amateur Athletic Titles and agreed to sit for a portrait in oils by Eileen Soper.

By the 1930’s Liddell had said no to competing in the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics, became engaged to Florence Mackenzie and joined the London Missionary Society.

By the middle of the same decade the Olympian had become ordained into the Ministry, lost his father James Liddell who died in 1933, returned to China where he married Florence Mackenzie in Tianjin’s Union Church in 1934.

Two of his daughter’s Patricia and Heather were born in Tianjin. The Liddell’s third daughter Maureen was born in Toronto in 1941. In 1941, life in China was dangerous and the British Government advised British nationals to leave. Florence and the children left for Canada in 1941 while Eric stayed in Tientsin (Tianjin) until 1943 .

From 1943 he was held with other foreign nationals in Weifang where he was sent to the Civilian Assembly Centre and died of a brain tumour in 1945. His mother Mary Liddell having passed away one year earlier in Edinburgh.

When the former Chinese ambassador to the United Kingdom was addressing the assembled audience in 2017 and talked of the spirit of Eric Liddell, he was doing so some 72 years after the death of the athlete.

He drew upon the past when he talked of Liddell writing textbooks, continuing to teach children, organising sport and displaying a sense of humanity during harsh times in harsh places.

At the time, 2017, and looking to the future the ambassador talked of universities, sport, educational exchange and more as a means of enhancing not so much Chinese foreign policy but a plea for mutual cultural relations.

Eric Liddell 100 and the 2024 Paris Olympics
At the Paris Olympic Games in 2024 it will be 100 years since Eric Liddell, refused to run on Sunday and won gold and bronze medals at the 1924 Paris Olympic Games. It provides an opportunity for countries to work together for an enlarged common good.

The French themselves have launched an impressive End Commun sports intervention, funded through a collaboration of thirteen public banks, designed to enable closer working relationships through sport between France and Africa. In simple terms Sport End Commun will fund, support, connect, advocate for and promote both French soft power and cultural relations building through sport.

It seems to many in the UK, including The Eric Liddell Community in Edinburgh and a number of partners, including the University of Edinburgh that the advent of the 2024 Olympics and the centenary of Eric Liddell’s Olympic success provides an opportunity to enable and build upon strong existing and new relationships through the spirt of Eric Liddell.

The spirit of Eric Liddell’s humanity can be an effective tool for the forging of better cultural relations, building bridges and enabling an enlarged common good. Something that is much needed in third decade of the 21st Century and a project that cannot be fully understood without understanding Scottish and Asian Cultures.

Sport itself should fully grasp the opportunity to be part of building more effective international and cultural relations and be seen to be contributing further to an enlarged common good.

Common Good
Matters of mutuality, trust, connectivity, long-term dialogue, and co-operation are important. Those working in sport and are well served by the notion of sport enabling cultural relations and striving to forge an enlarged common good.

As Ambassador Liu Xiaoming observed “We are living in a time of mutual learning for common progress”.

An opportunity presents itself with the advent of the 2024 Olympic Games to do just that through remembering and activating the spirit of Eric Liddell the Scottish athlete born in China. We should grasp the opportunity.

It is important to explore the world of Eric Liddell but also Eric Liddell as an enabler to a better world. There is a much needed and strong story to be told about how sport can bring us together, unify different groups and be part of what makes us human.