Keep­ing the faith

A fit­ting trib­ute to one of Scot­land’s sport­ing greats who lived, loved and died fol­low­ing his Chris­tian creed

The Herald - Arts - - BOOKS -

strug­gles to find any­thing truly scabrous to say about Lid­dell. The best of bi­ogra­phies nor­mally need this grit to pro­duce the per­fect oys­ter. Hamil­ton is left with a sub­ject who is uni­ver­sally praised as an ath­lete, lauded as a preacher and revered as an in­mate in a Chi­nese camp un­der Ja­panese con­trol in the Sec­ond World War.

Hamil­ton thus comes close to ha­giog­ra­phy, at least in its lit­eral terms. There is much of the saint in Lid­dell and it seems per­verse for even the most cyn­i­cal to deny it. This is a man who led friends, train­ers and fel­low prison in­mates to name their sons af­ter him. It is the most sin­cere of trib­utes.

Lid­dell, too, suf­fered the mar­tyr’s fate of an early death. He was 43 years and 37 days old when he suc­cumbed in 1945 to an un­di­ag­nosed brain tu­mour in Weih­sien camp. He had been suf­fer­ing from aw­ful headaches, dizzi­ness and fa­tigue but doc­tors put this down to a “ner­vous break­down” caused by over­work. Typ­i­cally, Lid­dell was bruised by this di­ag­no­sis. His way of liv­ing was to sur­ren­der ev­ery­thing to the will of God. Had he not been en­tirely faith­ful in this? How could he be tired do­ing the work of God? Had he been liv­ing a lie? The an­swer from the wit­nesses in the camp is over­whelm­ing. Lid­dell was not only in­dus­tri­ous, but car­ing and com­pas­sion­ate. He lived what he preached.

He was also far from rigid in his think­ing. He col­lab­o­rated with black mar­ket op­er­a­tions – sniffed at by many moral guardians – be­cause he be­lieved they sus­tained the most weak in the camp. Tellingly, he agreed to ref­eree Sun­day sports, break­ing a stance which cost him a gold medal. He ac­ceded to Sab­bath sport in the camp sim­ply be­cause it would help in­mates, phys­i­cally and psy­cho­log­i­cally.

The road to the camp and to death was sprin­kled by mo­ments of mun­dane glory. Born in China to a mis­sion­ary fa­ther, Lid­dell found he was an ex­cep­tional ath­lete un­der the min­is­tra­tions of a faith­ful trainer, Tom McKer­char. Lid­dell won 200 medals in his brief ath­letic ca­reer but he could have won a hat­ful of Olympic golds. He was su­perb at 100, 200 and 400 me­tres and could have com­peted in three Olympics in­stead of just the one.

He was adamant that giv­ing his life over to God meant just that: im­me­di­ately af­ter the Paris Olympics he took up a mis­sion­ary post in China. This was to be his life’s work. His con­ver­sion to a fully re­li­gious life was made on the road to Ar­madale. He preached there, some­what dif­fi­dently, as a stu­dent at Ed­in­burgh Univer­sity but was a ma­jor at­trac­tion be­cause of his sport­ing fame. His con­gre­ga­tions sub­se­quently grew and grew and so did his con­fi­dence in ad­dress­ing them.

The jour­ney to China was al­most in­evitable with Lid­dell be­com­ing a dis­ci­ple of a mis­sion­ary fa­ther he revered. It was to be a cru­cible that threat­ened and then took his life. It was a mer­ci­less forge that tested and then strength­ened his faith. The China of the 1930s and the 1940s was a bru­tal land­scape, plagued by ban­dits, scourged by civil war and then in­vaded by a Ja­panese army that was ruth­less and more than oc­ca­sion­ally mur­der­ous. Lid­dell met all of this with a brav­ery that owed noth­ing to cheap bravado but ev­ery­thing to his belief that he must act out of prin­ci­ples and th­ese could be di­vined by con­sult­ing the Bi­ble, par­tic­u­larly the New Tes­ta­ment.

This was a sim­ple ap­proach but, of course, it was not easy. The sacri­fice for Lid­dell was a fam­ily one. He sent his wife and chil­dren to safety while re­main­ing in China to ac­cept, ul­ti­mately, death. His mar­riage seems un­com­monly happy. Lid­dell was en­tranced by a younger woman. It is no sur­prise to learn that the first time he kissed her was when she agreed to marry him. They had three chil­dren, one of whom Lid­dell never saw.

This en­forced sep­a­ra­tion, of course, caused strains. It was dif­fi­cult for the chil­dren to ac­cept their fa­ther’s pre­ma­ture death, more dis­tress­ing to con­sider that he had cho­sen the dan­ger

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