It isn’t everyday that you get to meet a great man so when you do, you drop everything else and try and soak in a bit of that greatness… try and imbue your spirit with a little light from the halo.
The man I met yesterday had died long ago, in an internment camp in Weihsien, China. It must’ve been a cold and grey February day. Maybe it was raining too. 21st February, 1945. Liberation was just a few months away, but for now the Japanese held the camp.
Food was scarce and warmth even scarcer. Mud and gravel squelched and crunched as hurried footsteps rushed to the dying man’s bedside. The camp was losing its last light.
“Uncle Eric! Uncle Eric!” squeaked a little boyish voice. Choked with emotion, another little hand would have nudged the blond man, still only 43 years old, as he lay in bed, drifting in and out of consciousness, trying desperately, yet respectfully, to wake him back to life. ‘Uncle Eric’, if conscious, must surely have turned to him and smiled as the downpour muffled the sobs that racked the camp. As his thoughts turned to God and he mumbled away the last few breaths in prayer and blessings, it wasn’t just his family and friends that wept in his wake in faraway Scotland. As a group of inconsolable Chinese mourners lowered the casket bearing the golden-haired missionary into the ground, these words - ‘The Flying Scotsman Eric Liddell – 16th January 1902 – 21st February 1945’, hastily etched, stared back at the mourners until the earth swallowed it all up – man, wood, words and prayers, but nay, not his undying legacy.
While little hands pressed the earth six feet above the handsome form of Eric Liddell, on a race-track somewhere in England, another man in a suit was reminded of that name. “Eric Henry Liddell – the flying Scot indeed”, he must have thought.
A man though he was and only a year older than Liddell, he still must have shed a silent tear or two that day for he owed his greatest achievements to two names alone. One was Eric’s, and the other, his own – Abrahams! Harold Abrahams!
Harold Abrahams was an English Jew. His father had emigrated from Poland. While Christian England had ostensibly welcomed him and his family into the country, his name and his faith still raised an eyebrow, and through a patronising tone or a social denouncement, in good humour or otherwise, often reminded him that he may well be English but hardly an equal.
Harold Abrahams spent his adolescence striving to prove himself. That hunger in his eyes and that fire in his belly led him to the army and then on to Cambridge where he studied law. Even there, his name drew in prejudice but that is not the reason why he is here in our story. He is here because he ran with his name and wrapped it around a legend – a legend that still rings a bell at Trinity College.
The Trinity Great Court Run – running round the 400 yards of the Trinity court within the 43 seconds it takes for the college clock to strike noon – has remained an insurmountable challenge for even the world’s best runners. Fewer than a handful have risen to the challenge in the last 500 years and legend has it that Abrahams rose to it faster than the fastest.
Harold Abrahams ran to prove, he ran to erase, he ran for glory, he ran to be acknowledged. To him running was about winning as much as it was about fighting. He ran not because he was happy but because he was angry, with fate, God and man, and he must have been angry with God, fate and man that day too when he heard that Eric Liddell had entered the earth, long before his time, the way he would finish his races, long before his time.
Abrahams first saw Liddell at a 400 metres race against France’s best athletes where he tripped and fell but then got up and powered his way through a score and more meter-deficit to win. He was in awe of the sublime force that coursed through Liddell’s veins. And he wondered where it came from…
He wondered about that power even more when Eric shook his hand and sincerely wished him well before a race and then left him in the dust, crushed and defeated, as much by the man as by the idea of losing to him.
Both Harold Abrahams and Eric Liddell had made it to the British Olympic squad for the 1924 Summer games. Harold was training like a professional athlete long before professionalism ‘tainted’ (as the purists, not I, would say) the amateur spirit of the games. He had a trainer, Sam Mussabini, who had polished his technique to the point where his time in the 100 metre dash was better than Liddell’s. Abrahams knew that his hour was at hand. He would beat the Americans who held the records in the dash but more than that, he wanted to beat Liddell.
But the evangelical Eric Liddell cared little for settling scores. He just ran for the joy of it, and for God, to ‘honour Him’. And God, it seemed, was not so happy about him running. The 100 m heats were drawn for Sunday, the day of Sabbath. And Eric couldn’t imagine running a race on the day set aside for rest and honouring God through prayer.
From Harold Abrahams to the Prince of Wales, they all urged and insisted that Liddell reconsider, for King, country and countryman, but Eric’s mind was made. Abrahams was crestfallen. He knew not what he was chasing more. A gold medal and a world record or vengeance, but Eric assured him that he needn’t worry about his victory being incomplete. He told Abrahams that his current race times were much better than his own. Abrahams was sure to defeat him even if he did take part in the race. Now, how big a heart does a man need to be able to reassure a vanquished rival thus.
Eric Liddell did not run the race he had waited his whole life for. The 100 metres dash at the Olympics is arguably the show-piece event of the great games. Harold Abrahams won that race.
But Eric Liddell’s greatness was a flame that burnt too bright to not light up the Paris games. Eric’s name was entered in the 400 metres race and though not his best event by any stretch, Eric decided to run for God if not for glory. Little was expected of Liddell but Eric went on his marks, got set and boy, did he go. Eric Liddell ran like a blond streak that cut through the day and its misgivings and breasted the tape for gold in world record time. I met the legend of this man last night at the Gielgud theatre in London where they were playing a stage version of Chariots of Fire, the Oscar winning 1981 classic.
But Liddell’s legend wasn’t done. The stage actor who played Liddell, Jack Lowden, went on to talk about Liddell’s life away from the track. Eric had been born in China and had promised his missionary parents, that he would get his degree and return to China after the Olympics. And true to his word, he let go of what could have been a glorious athletic career and returned, to work tirelessly for man and God; helping people wherever and however he could, whether it was teaching young people about life and the Lord through sports and games or by giving away his meager rations to someone hungrier.
The war came to China with the Japanese forces and Eric and his ‘parishioners’ were interred as prisoners of war in a camp. Here too, Eric served ceaselessly, his will and his prayers, carried him through the crushing exhaustion and a lethal tumour. Scotland and his family wanted him back and the Japanese offered him safe passage back home. He must have been tempted. He was human after all. But his Lord wasn’t done with his tests. He sent him a pregnant woman who told him of her woes, her pain and her suffering, and Eric could see that she needed to go home to be happy. But did it have to be at the cost of his happiness? He didn’t know. But he did know that he was meant to take her pain and so he did. He gave the papers to his freedom to her and she left with tears in her eyes and joy in her heart. Liddell knew he had just given away the rest of his life to a stranger and there must’ve been that hollow heavy feeling in the gut, that dull throbbing ache that comes with great loss, but there would have been a faint smile on his lips – for though it had been too great a price to pay, but he had won yet again, and this was a race not many would have wanted to run.
But Eric Liddell is not most people. Most people don’t have his gifts and most people don’t have the courage or the conviction to run through life or a race with the power and grace of the ‘Flying Scotsman’.
The Olympics are here again, but nearly a century later, here we are, still clapping for you…, Eric.