A Feature Review of
For the Glory: Eric Liddell’s Journey from Olympic Champion to Modern Martyr
Reviewed by Emma Sleeth Davis
When most people hear the name Eric Liddell, they think of the Scottish runner who refused to run on the Sabbath and won gold at the 1924 Olympics in Chariots of Fire. The movie, of course, is only half of the story.
In For the Glory, Duncan Hamilton takes an in-depth look at the life of Eric Liddell, from his missionary childhood in China, through his schooldays in Scotland, and at the height of his fame at the Olympics. But where Chariots of Fire closes to the triumphant strains of Vangelis, Hamilton uncovers the even more remarkable second half of Liddell’s life—as a missionary in China, devoted husband and father, and heroic internee during WWII.
Liddell was raised in China until he was six, at which point he and his older brother, Rob, were sent to Eltham, a London boarding school for the children of missionaries. At Edinburgh University, Liddell played rugby, and in 1921, at age nineteen, he was selected to play for the Scottish national team. The same year, he was spotted by running coach Tom McKerchar; with improved technique and strategy, Liddell quickly began winning races across Scotland.
Liddell faced world-class opponents—including Harold Abrahams, Liddell’s foil in Chariots of Fire—for the first time at Stamford Bridge, where he set a new British 100-meter record. When his athletic success began to draw crowds, Liddell used the opportunity to talk about his faith; for Liddell, following Christ always came first. When it was revealed that the Olympic heats for the 100 meter were scheduled for a Sunday, Liddell said he would not run on the Sabbath. The British Olympic Association thought Liddell was betraying his country, but Liddell’s allegiance was always to the Kingdom of God over any nation.
After setting a new world record at the 1924 Olympics in the 400 meters, Liddell became a national celebrity. But instead of basking in his glory or training for the next Olympics, he departed for China. There he taught chemistry at a cosmopolitan Anglo-Chinese school and met his wife, Florence. Together they had two daughters, Patricia and Heather.
Amidst nation-wide upheaval and vicious fighting between war lords, Nationalists, and Communists, Liddell was reassigned to a rural outpost. The London Missionary Society deemed it too dangerous for Florence and the girls to accompany him. Often harassed, robbed, and shot at, Liddell faithfully witnessed throughout the countryside.
When it became clear that war with the Japanese was approaching, Liddell put Florence, who was pregnant with their third child, and their daughters on a boat for Canada. He decided to remain in China, where he felt God still wanted him. In 1943, Liddell and 1,800 other foreigners were interned at Weihsien, a camp 150 by 200 yards surrounded by wall, barbed wire, and electric fence.
Conditions in Weihsien were atrocious. Insufficient shelter, clothes, sanitation, and medical care were only the beginning of the problems. Constant work, freezing winters, and malnutrition wore everyone down. The tight quarters caused constant squabbles.
In all the squalor, Liddell became an informal leader of the multinational inmates. He mediated disputes, worked tirelessly, and often gave his food to others. To raise morale, he participated in Sports Day races; even though he was in his forties and handicapped himself, he always won, an indomitability mirrored by his unflaggingly good spirits. Liddell also preached sermons and taught Sunday School classes. He became known as “Uncle Eric” to the youth, to whom he taught chemistry from memory and coached in running and other sports. Liddell became such a central figure in the camp and was so in demand that his bunkmates put an “In/Not In” sign on their barracks because they were tired of telling visitors that he wasn’t there.
In late autumn 1944 Liddell noticed that his health was deteriorating. He had trouble remembering things and couldn’t work like he used to. Still, he valiantly endeavored to hide his weakness from the people who depended on him, and even ran in one last race. When Liddell finally went to the camp’s hospital, he was told that he was suffering a mental breakdown. The diagnosis was deeply troubling to Liddell, who believed that his faith should have kept him from cracking under the conditions of internment. In reality, he had a brain tumor.
Liddell died in 1945, at age forty-three, just five months before the camp was freed. He never got to see his third daughter, Maureen.
Eric Liddell ran every race God set before him with exceptional humility, class, and endurance. His life deserves the renewed attention it is going to get with the concurrent releases of For the Glory and the movie The Last Race. Duncan Hamilton is a sports writer, so he inserts his own opinions and over-dramatizes some details in a way that feels at odds with his otherwise commendably academic standard of historical accuracy. But turning a biography into a compelling story is an impressive feat that more than makes up for Hamilton’s occasional lapses in literary restraint. For the Glory is a well-researched and worthwhile read that brings to the forefront the inspiring, deeply Christian character of a man who was so much more than his Olympic medals.