Eric Liddell had been awarded a gold medal at the 1924 Olympics, winning the 440-yard dash for Britain and setting a world record, although he had trained for the 100-yard dash. This had been set for a Sunday but he did not want to run on a Sunday, as he believed the Lord’s Day was to be kept holy. His life and the famous race were immortalized in the Oscar winning movie Chariots of Fire.
He became a missionary teacher in China and had already shown courage before ever being interned by the Japanese. The Japanese had left a poor Chinese man wounded and dying in a deserted temple in no-man’s-land, twenty miles away from Eric’s mission station and hospital. Eric, and a Chinese friend with a pushcart crossed the dangerous fighting lines to rescue the wounded man. After almost being discovered by Japanese patrols, they brought him to the hospital, forty miles round trip, and saved his life. Eric discovered that the man was a brilliant artist and kept one of his paintings over his bed in the camp. It was of a pink and white peony, brilliant with subtle colors.
My eldest brother, Robin, slept in the same dormitory as Eric. He pointed the picture out to me during one of my visits and introduced me to Eric. He was forty two, had a spring in his step and a friendly smile. I was eleven and feeling quite insignificant as “Hoyte four” in the camp boarding school. But Eric took an interest in me and spoke to me with such ease and informality that I suddenly felt important. That was his nature for he loved kids and would do anything he could to give us “orphans,” separated from our parents, a sense of self-worth in spite of the misery of the camp. Robin was quite proud of sharing the dormitory with the Olympic hero and I could understand why. If we were without our parents, Eric was without his wife and daughters who were now in Canada on their way to Scotland, so he understood our longings. The separation must have been hard for him but it did not show in his zest for life and creative living. His face was distinctive in that he had a pronounced dimple in the middle of his chin.
As an outstanding athlete, Eric was modest about his gold medal and would play down the honor though this led to him giving talks in the camp on the running world, competition, ambition, painful training, sacrifice for excellence, the temptation to pride and his vibrant faith. His calling could be: running a race for his country, being a missionary teacher in the Anglo-Chinese College in Tientsin or, if confined to a prison camp, to teaching mathematics at the camp school and keeping up the morale of young people. It became apparent that for him the three and a half years of confinement were the very opposite to being wasted. Running for him was integral to his faith, an extension of his being, and for him there was no difference between the secular and the sacred. He was overflowing with good humor and love of life and devoting his time to being involved with us young people. We called him Uncle Eric. He organized games, particularly field hockey, planned square dances, chess tournaments and debates and seemed tireless in everything he did. He was “a man for others,” and no one else in the camp could match his caring spirit.
On another occasion Jimmy and I found him on the edge of the camp sports field, working on some field hockey sticks. I do not know where the camp hockey sticks came from, but there must have been enough available for serious hockey matches. There he was, sitting on the ground, with tape and glue, repairing a couple of battered hockey sticks. Nothing was too menial for him to fix. We found it so easy to chat with him that the brief encounter stays fresh in my memory.
Near the end of 1944 he began to suffer headaches and then had a slight stroke the following February. The camp doctor suspected a brain tumor but nothing could be done about it. Ten days later he lapsed into a coma and passed away that evening. He had been joyfully running the race of life when his chariot of fire came swooping down to take him to join that other great runner, Elijah.
The Power of the Lord came upon Elijah and, tucking his cloak into his belt, he ran ahead of King Ahab's chariot all the way to Jezreel. First Kings 18, verse 46. The Bible.
As Elijah and Elisha were walking along and talking, suddenly a chariot of fire and horses of Fire appeared and separated the two of them. Elijah went up to heaven in a whirlwind. Second Kings 2, verse 11.The Bible.