Running the race

ET staff writer
ET staff writer
01 September, 2008 4 min read

Running the race

A Chinese version of a new biography of Eric Liddell – the Scottish missionary and Olympic gold medal winner – was launched in China during the Beijing Olympics. Thousands of copies of Running the race in simplified Chinese have already been purchased by the official state bookstore in Beijing, where Liddell continues to be viewed as a local hero.

Author and Isle of Skye minister John Keddie, himself a former athlete, visited China as part of a promotional tour for the book, which included photo opportunities with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, Lord Sebastian Coe and the British Olympic Association Chairman Colin Moynihan.

He also took part in a BBC documentary and toured locations closely connected with Liddell’s life in China. Copies of Running the race in English have been made available to Team GB athletes.

1924 Olympics

Eric Liddell ran for Great Britain at the Paris Olympics in 1924 and famously refused to compete in the 100 yards because the final was run on a Sunday. The story was told in the Oscar-winning film Chariots of fire which depicted Liddell’s role after he changed his distance and went on to win gold in the 400 yards race. The fact is often overlooked that he also secured a bronze medal in the 200 yards.

After the Olympics he turned his back on fame and fortune, and a successful rugby career – he was capped seven times for Scotland – and returned to China, his birthplace, to work as a missionary.

Such was his dedication to China, believes John Keddie, there might be a case for calling Liddell China’s first Olympic champion. ‘He was born in China, he died in China, he helped the Chinese people and he had a great love for China; it really was his frame of reference in his life. These things endear him to the Chinese even though in principle there is a hesitancy about making a hero of someone who was a Christian missionary’.

Early labours

Liddell was born to missionary parents in the north Chinese port of Tianjin in 1902. He spent his early years there, leaving to complete his university education in Scotland. He returned to China to serve as a science and sports teacher and missionary as soon as he had won his Olympic gold medal in Paris. The school where he taught still stands in Tianjin and there is a plaque to mark the location of his house.

Liddell maintained his interest in athletics, and long after Paris was still running in local races. He helped build the Mingyuan Athletics Stadium in Tianjin and, it is said, used Chelsea’s old Stamford Bridge sports ground, his favourite running venue, as a rough model. John Keddie believes Liddell could have challenged for Olympic gold again in 1928 and 1932, ‘but his life was on a different track by then’.

Certainly, he was still fit enough to compete against the visiting French and Japanese Olympic teams in 1928 – he won the 200 and 400 yards – and in 1929 he defeated the German 800 yards world-record holder Otto Peltzer in the 400. During his first furlough in 1932, Liddell was ordained as a minister of religion.

Protecting the flock

When the Japanese invaded in 1937, Liddell worked tirelessly to help the people of China and stayed in the country even after Japan went to war with Britain in 1941. Along with other foreign nationals, he was interned in 1943 in a camp at Weifeng, Shandong Province.

Liddell quickly assumed a position of leadership and was involved in securing fresh vegetables from local sources when food supplies diminished. He remained in the camp until his death from a brain tumour two years later at the age of 43. There is a memorial to Liddell in Weifeng.

His service in protecting his ‘flock’ from the Japanese has always been acknowledged by the Chinese, and following his death and burial at Weifeng, Liddell’s remains were removed to the Mausoleum of Martyrs at Shih-Chia-Chuang, 150 miles south-west of Beijing – where China honours 700 selected individuals who made the ultimate sacrifice in the liberation of China from the Japanese.

Chariots of fire

John Keddie’s book is published by Evangelical Press, and the Chinese version has been translated directly from the English with no changes to the text and only the addition of a few extra photographs, uncovered since it was first published in English earlier this year. Ten thousand Chinese copies have been printed in China.

Rev. Keddie entered the ministry of the Free Church in 1987, moving from Burghead to Bracadale, Skye, in 1997 and then into the Free Church Continuing in 2000. He is an athletics historian and produced the centenary history of the Scottish Amateur Athletics Association in 1982.

His work in a series of articles on Eric Liddell for Athletics Weekly in the 1970s caught the attention of scriptwriter Colin Welland, and John was invited to be a consultant on the movie Chariots of fire which went on to win seven Oscars (John Keddie’s name appears in the film’s acknowledgements). He has long been an admirer of Eric Liddell and wanted for years to write his biography.

Christians in China

Running the race draws heavily on athletics as well as Liddell’s later missionary labours in China. Rev. Keddie told Highland News: ‘It’s a very detailed look at his sporting achievements and I think that distinguishes it from some of the others that have been written. I would prefer to see it in the sporting section in bookshops.

‘I felt that of all the biographers I had some unique qualifications – I was a Scot, I was an athlete and a rugby-player, I am a historian of athletics, and I am also a Christian. And I think all these things together give an aspect to it that’s a wee bit different’.

The People’s Republic of China is the third or fourth largest country by area and the most populous in the world with more than 1.3 billion people – one fifth of all humanity.

Details of numbers of Christians are hard to come by, because Christianity is often subject to suppression in the country. Official estimates suggest there are 16 million Christians, but some reports say there may be as many as 50 million believers worshipping secretly in house churches, outside the state-regulated Three-Self Church.

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