15 December 2017


Eric Liddell was a Scot who won a Gold medal in the 1924 Paris Olympics. Then he went to China as a Christian missionary. The movie of his life was called Chariots of Fire.

I was a journalist in search of a story.

Interviewing the manager of the Eric Liddell Centre in Edinburgh, a converted church housing many charitable organisations, we got talking about the great man.

“Perhaps you would like to meet his daughter,” he suggested. Well, yeah, I thought to myself, but would she like to meet me?

What I didn’t understand then was that some folk can shake your foundations just with their presence. Patricia Russell never really talked about God to me. She was simply in His presence the whole time we spoke.

There’s a story of how her father loved to hear his mother sing The Ninety Nine And The One. In this old hymn Jesus takes ninety-nine of His sheep to safety and then goes back into the storm to save the one lost sheep.

Each time she sang it, young Eric would end up in tears. Eventually she refused to sing it any more. Eric pleaded, promising he wouldn’t cry. So his mum sang the hymn – while Eric stood with his face to the wall so no-one could see his tears.

When World War Two reached China, where her family was living the missionary life, she, her sister and mother, were the sheep Eric saw to safety first, putting them on a steamer for Canada. She still remembered the boat pulling away and her daddy turning his back so no-one could see his tears. Then he walked into a land being fought over by three armies – because there were others out there in need of saving.

He died in an internment camp, but not before setting an example the grandchildren of the people he helped remember to this day.

raI asked her about the movie. In it her father had refused to run the 100 metres, a race he was almost guaranteed gold in, because the preliminaries were to be held on Sunday. Instead he went to church.

Then he ran in the 400 metres, where no-one thought he had a hope – and set a new world record.

“Do you think he did the right thing?” I asked.

“Absolutely,” she said. “If he had run in the 100 metres he would have lost.”

“How can you be so sure?” I asked.

“Because something that was central to him would have been broken.”

“Hmm, an interesting insight,” the journalist in me thought. “I want some of that,” the confused soul in me thought. I wanted the “something” Eric Liddell had and his daughter simply radiated.

Eric Liddell ran a good race – and I hope I do too!

WORDS David McLaughlan