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