Eric Liddell: great ambition is the passion of great character

I caught Chariots of Fire over the weekend on one of those Sky Vintage Channels. Always one of my favourites because of the story, the principles of Eric Liddell, and the music, it won a number of Oscars. Although it didn’t inspire me to become a runner, it is filled with a number of personal performance and coaching lessons, not just for athletes, but for business folks as well.

Chariots of Fire is about two British sprinters competing in the 1924 Paris Olympics. Starring Ben Cross and the late Ian Charleson as British sprinters, the film won four Oscars at the 1981 Academy Awards, including best original music for Vangelis’s stirring synth-fuelled score.

Don’t tell me you haven’t run along to the music in slow motion at some time in your life? I always do it when I see someone going mad in the gym and satisfy myself with a slow-motion lurch to the line to win an imaginary gold medal, with just a mild sweat on.

Chariots of Fire is about guts, determination and belief. At the heart of the film is the quest for Olympic glory, with personal challenge resonating throughout. The film depicts the struggles of two British Olympic runners – one Jewish, one a deeply religious Christian – and how they reconcile their love of running with their respective faiths. Discretion, loyalty and self-sacrifice, questions of faith and refusal to compromise, standing for one’s beliefs, achieving something for the sake of it, with passion and not just for fame or financial gain, are the underpinning themes behind the race itself.

It’s the very first film as an adult that literally moved me to tears, around the profound justice of success borne from sticking to your principles and values. The scene at the film’s climax of Liddell winning the 400m in record time, held on his teammate’s shoulders as his coach, colleagues and future British king applaud him, with the Vangelis music. Gets me every time!

The film’s title was inspired by the line, Bring me my chariot of fire, from the William Blake poem adapted into the popular British hymn Jerusalem. The hymn is heard at the end of the film.

The ruthlessly determined Harold Abrahams is the son of a Lithuanian Jew, driven partly by a desire to overcome the anti-Semitic prejudice that he encounters, not least among the dons when he goes up to Cambridge in 1919. He becomes the first person to complete the Trinity Great Court Run, running around the college courtyard in the time it takes for the clock to strike 12. Abrahams achieves an undefeated string of victories in various national running competitions.

Eric Liddell, as the son of a China-based Scottish missionary, is powered by his unremitting Christian faith, something that causes consternation when he pulls out of a 100m Olympics heat because it is to be run on a Sunday. Different in some ways, the two men are markedly similar in others: both show a self-punishing dedication and both jeopardise their emotional relationships with others, to achieve success on the track.

When Eric Liddell accidentally misses a church prayer meeting because of his running, his sister Jennie upbraids him and accuses him of no longer caring about God. Eric tells her that though he intends to eventually return to the China mission, he feels divinely inspired when running, and that not to run would be to dishonour God: I believe that God made me for a purpose. But He also made me fast, and when I run, I feel His pleasure.

Liddell’s faith is a problem at the Olympics as the 100m final is slated for a Sunday, so he switches events to the 400m thanks to team mate Lord Andrew Lindsay, who having already won a silver medal at 400m hurdles, yields his place in the 400m race on the following Thursday.

Before Liddell’s race, the American coach remarks dismissively to his runners that Liddell has little chance of doing well in his now far longer 400m race, but one of the American runners, Jackson Scholz, hands Liddell a note of support for his convictions. Liddell defeats the American favourites and wins the gold medal.

Little ran his first race for Edinburgh Athletics Club in 1921 and ran his final competitive race in 1925. In those four years he completed a degree in pure science, became a religious speaker of national renown, won two Olympic medals and seven caps for his country at rugby union, where he became a first-choice wing three-quarter before forsaking the sport in 1923 to concentrate on athletics.

His sporting success was achieved despite a running style that is considered ungainly – probably the inelegant runner who ever won an Olympics. When he appeared in the heats of the 400m at Paris in 1924 his huge sprawling stride, his head thrown back and his arms clawing the air, moved the crowd to ribald laughter.

In Stoke on Trent in July 1923, in a race run over a quarter of a mile, England saw just how true he was. At the first bend he tripped over the legs of the English runner JJ Gillies, falling off the track. By the time he was back on his feet the last of the other runners was 30 yards away and moving fast, but Liddell attacked them with such pace that he overtook Gillies three yards from the line to win before collapsing, spent, to the ground.

“The circumstances in which Liddell won the event made it a performance bordering on the miraculous,” wrote The Scotsman. “Veterans, whose memories take them back 35 years, and in some cases even longer, in the history of athletics, were unanimous in the opinion that Liddell’s win in the quarter-mile was the greatest ever track performance that they had ever seen.”

So Liddell’s second appearance at the Olympic Stadium in Colombes (he made his international rugby debut there) was victorious and he returned to Britain a hero. One of his first duties was to attend his graduation ceremony at Edinburgh University. He was crowned by a laurel wreath by the principal, Sir Alfred Ewing. “Mr Liddell,” said Ewing, “you have shown that none could pass you except the examiners.”

He spent a further year in Edinburgh, studying theology and preparing for missionary work in China, the country of his birth. His final race on British soil came less than a year after the Olympics, in June 1925, when he won the 100 yards, the 220 yards and the quarter-mile events at the Scottish Amateur Championships at Hampden. A few weeks later hundreds of well wishers turned up at Waverley Station as he began his journey to China.

Once Japan entered WWII, Liddell and other westerners had their freedom of movement restricted, and in 1943 he and thousands of others were interned at a camp in Weihsien. There he established a school and took charge of the children’s recreation, organising sporting activities and creating or mending equipment. He was even said to have broken a habit of a lifetime by engaging in sporting activity on Sundays, refereeing children’s’ football matches.

On one occasion Liddell was given a chance to leave the camp through an exchange arrangement made by Winston Churchill, but he instead arranged for a pregnant woman to take his place. Early in 1945, six months before the camp’s liberation, Liddell became ill. In a letter he told his wife that he feared he was having a nervous breakdown. In fact it was a brain tumour, untreatable in those circumstances, and on 21 February 1945 he died.

He was buried in the garden behind the Japanese officers’ quarters, his grave marked by a small wooden cross. The site was forgotten until it was rediscovered in 1989, in the grounds of what is now Weifeng Middle School. A gravestone, made of red granite from the Isle of Mull and carved by a mason in Tobermory, was placed near the site in 1991.

Besides a great, evocative and poignant story, there are several relevant insights to stimulate our current day business thinking from Liddell’s story:

Look forward, don’t look back. You can’t press ahead at your goals while at the same time watching what everyone else is doing.  Yes, you need an understanding of the market landscape, just like a runner can’t just wander into other people’s lanes, but other than that keep the focus straight ahead at the goal. Face forward, and move forward, at the best pace you can.

Stick to your values. Eric actually beats out Harold for the Olympic spot and then refuses to run because the race is on a Sunday.  The British government pressures him, and he still won’t run.  As it turns out, a 400m runner gives up his spot so Eric can still represent at the Olympics and maintain the Sabbath.

There will be times when you will feel like you need to do things a certain way in order to move ahead.  Some things may be negotiable but your values are not.  You don’t need to give up who you are to be successful.

Be yourself. At the start of the 400m, Eric shakes hands with each of the competitors and introduces himself.  It’s natural for him but in the world of competitive sports it’s completely unexpected.  Then he leaves them in the dust with his superior running ability.

You don’t have to be overtly aggressive, in order to achieve your goals. Better to be who you are, and run the race your own way.

Set realistic personal objectives. Abrahams is driven to be the fastest runner in the world. After watching Abrahams in a 100m race, and – for the first time ever – Abrahams loses, nosed out by Liddell, Mussabini approaches him and says simply: Mr Abrahams, I can find you another two yards.

What he meant was: If you train with me and follow my instructions, you can be two yards farther ahead. Why did Mussabini use those exact words? Why didn’t he say I can make you a winner? Because Mussabini knew that gaining two yards is absolute, but winning a race is relative. He could predictably ensure the former, but the latter was beyond his control, because winning a race depends on the other runners, too.

Target improvements in several aspects of your performance Over the next days and weeks, Mussabini improved specific parts of Abrahams’s mechanics and running technique. He shortened Abraham’s stride and lowered his arm action. He found ways to get more power at the start, and improved the dip at the finish. All of those things are absolute—they don’t depend on anyone else.

Mussabini also emphasised mental preparation, familiarising Abrahams with the tendencies of his major rivals, not just Liddell but the two leading Americans, Charles Paddock and Jackson Scholz. It was important to learn their times, their habits, their strengths. Winning a race would call for every possible advantage. As a result, Abrahams became a faster runner, and he improved his chances of success.

But Mussabini knew better than to guarantee a win. Why? Because at the same moment, Abrahams’s rivals were also working on their technique, their conditioning, their mental preparation.  They were all committed to improving themselves, as well. If Abrahams found those two yards but his rivals improved by two yards and half, he wouldn’t win.

Company performance is similarly better understood as relative, not absolute. Following a formula cannot ensure success because if our rivals are doing the same things, we’ll be no better off. In business, there is a need to do things differently than rivals, which necessarily entails risks.

Great ambition is the passion of a great character. Personal leadership is the process of keeping your vision and values before you and aligning your life to be congruent with them. It’s not hard to make decisions when you know what your values are. As Einstein said, try not to become a man of success but rather try to become a man of value.

For a man whose athletics career was so brief and is now so distant, Liddell continues to cast a lengthy shadow. It took until the 1980 Games for another Scot to win a gold medal, and until 2004 for another China-born athlete to win a gold medal on the track. After the 1980 100m final race, Allan Wells having won the 100m title that Liddell was denied by an accident of scheduling, the victor simply said: That one’s for Eric Liddell