With the 2012 London Olympics having their closing ceremonies this evening, it’s amazing to think of all the great Olympic memories that have been created just this past fortnight. We can add so many people and teams and moments to an already long list in our collective memory, so many great Olympic moments over the years, whether we’ve witnessed them live or seen them on old black and white film…Jesse Owens, Coe and Ovett, Michael Phelps, Chris Hoy, the Scottish Curlers, The Miracle On Ice, The Dream Team. Even the mere mention of only first names brings back certain memories to our minds…Olga, Nadia, and now, there’s Usain. Or perhaps a fitting last name, like Bolt…
Scotland was gripped watching Andy Murray’s attempt to win the Olympic Men’s Singles at Wimbledon. It seemed the entire nation was glued to their televisions whenever Andy was on court. And when the last tennis ball was hit, you could almost hear the entire nation roar as Andy won the Gold. What we as a country experienced following Andy was very much like what it was like eighty-eight years ago, when another Scot, Eric Liddell, grabbed the nation’s attention when he won the Gold at the 1924 Paris Olympics.
Eric Liddell was born on January 16, 1902, and was not only a world-class sprinter, but an international rugby union player as well. He was capped seven times for Scotland. And he was the winner of the Men’s 400 meter and a Bronze Medal winner in the 200 meter at the 1924 Summer Olympics in Paris.
After the Olympics, Liddell returned to Britain a national hero. Even though he had a life of fame and riches before him, he instead chose to live a humble and rather dangerous life as a missionary in China, the land of his birth. There was more to this man than just being a world class athlete in two sports.
When hearing his complete story– and not just what took place at the Olympics– people everywhere have been inspired by the giving heart and the unwavering conviction of Eric Liddell. Most people know he considered Sunday to be sacred, a day set apart for the Lord, and that he honored God in his convictions by refusing to participate in an event in which he was best in the world, as it was to be held on a Sunday. This aspect of his life was depicted in the 1981 Oscar winning film, Chariots Of Fire.
The movie shows some of the things that give us a great idea of just what kind of person Eric Liddell was.
In a rather moving scene in the film, in an event that actually took place at a track meet in England between Scotland, Ireland, and England in July 1923, Liddell was knocked down only a few strides into a 440 yard race. When he hit the ground, the crowd groaned. His hopes for any kind of medal seemed dashed. But to everyone’s amazement, Liddell rose to his feet, looked at the other runners 20 yards ahead of him, and began to run. A spectator remarked that Liddell would be hard pressed to win the race. A Scotsman next to him quickly replied, “His heid’s no’ back yet.”. And at that, Liddell was off. The man who was known as “The Flying Scotsman” threw his head back and, with mouth wide open, he ran harder than ever. He caught the leaders shortly before the finish line, and collapsed after smashing through the tape, winning the race. This was Liddell’s unique signature: head tilted back, mouth wide open, body in full stretch…and feet moving faster than those of any other person in the world.
As Vince Lombardi, the inspirational coach of the Green Bay Packers, once said, “It’s not whether you get knocked down. It’s whether you get back up.”. That, too, was what Eric Liddell was all about.
And this was seen in Eric’s relationship with his sister, Jennie. Jennie was greatly concerned that all the running and training he was doing would lead him away from God, particularly if it made him famous. She felt her brother’s passion for running was a hindrance to his relationship with God.
But he told her, “I believe God made me for a purpose. For China. But He also made me fast. And when I run, I feel His pleasure. To give it up would be to hold Him in contempt.”. When she heard these words, she then knew that God had a hold of him, and that he was doing only what God had made him to do.
In another great scene from the movie, on the Sunday that he was supposed to be running in the 100 metre qualifying heats, Eric Liddel was instead to be found preaching at the Church of Scotland in Paris. He knew that that was exactly where God wanted him to be.
Perhaps the most famous scene in the movie takes place just before the Olympic 400 meter dash is about to start in Paris. The bagpipers of the 51st Highland Brigade had been playing outside the stadium for the hour before Liddell ran. As if that wasn’t inspiration enough for him, Liddell was then given a handwritten note by the American runner Jackson Sholz, which quoted from I Samuel 2v30. The note read: “It says in the Old Book, ‘He that honors Me, I will honor.’”.
Just a few months earlier, Liddell had chosen not to compete in his best event, the 100 meter sprint, solely because it was going to take place on a Sunday. He had also been selected to run as a member of the British 4×100 and 4×400 relay teams, but also declined these spots as their heats, too, were to be held on a Sunday. Liddell believed that for him to fully honor God, he couldn’t race on a Sunday. To do that, he thought, would be to disobey God.
Many people couldn’t understand why Liddell would do this. The newspaper headlines were vicious. They thought he was letting all of Great Britain down.
But Liddell had to put God first. He had to honor God with his decision. So when the starter’s pistol went off in the 1924 Paris Olympics 400 meter event, Liddell soon began running with his unusual running style: head tilted back, mouth wide open, body in full stretch– and feet moving faster than those of any other person in the world…
At the finish line, Liddell finished 5 meters ahead of anyone else. He had won an Olympic Gold Medal in an event he wasn’t even supposed to run. He wasn’t expected to win it either. Yet he did it in 47.6 seconds– a World and Olympic record.
After the race, Liddell said, “The secret of my success over the 400 meters is that I run the first 200 meters as fast as I can. Then, for the second 200 meters, with God’s help, I run faster.”. That day, God honored Eric Liddell.
But you know what? Even if Liddell had not won the race, I believe that God would have honored him in some other way. Just in this case, God chose to honor him with a Gold medal.
But it’s not always that way. With some of our expectations of Him, sometimes I think we treat or view God almost like He’s a magic genie.
When the Olympics began, I read an article on Idara Otu, a Nigerian Olympic track star who’s on their women’s 4×400 relay team. She’s a graduate of Stanford University in California, where she was a two-time All-American track star and where she also earned her Master’s degree.
In the article, it says: Idara Otu.and other athletes at the Olympics…share one thing in common: many of them are devout Christians. Otu’s bold faith and practical living helps her stay on a mission to become a better follower of Christ. Otu says…“Not everything is going to be easy; and just being a Christian or having faith does not mean everything is going to be easy. It just helps to give you the strength to overcome whatever obstacles that are in your way.” Otu’s thoughts are also applicable to her sport. Focus is central to good, consistent races. Otu maintains her focus with her favorite Scripture passage, Psalm 37:4: “‘Delight yourself also in the Lord; and He shall give thee the desires of your heart.’ That’s really what I live by. Obviously, I’m not perfect, but I’m trying to be more Christ-like every day; but I always think that if I’m delighting in Him, He’s going to give me what’s in my heart.”
I was struck by that last line, “…but I always think that if I’m delighting in Him, He’s going to give me what’s in my heart.”. Only a few days after reading that, I read this about a Bible study that was getting ready to begin in a small church in Otu’s own country:
Gunmen stormed an evangelical church in central Nigeria, cut the electricity and opened fire once the building was plunged into darkness, killing 19 people, including the pastor, officials said.
I’m sure that these people, like Idara Otu, weren’t perfect, that they too were trying to be more Christ-like every day, that they too were delighting in God. So I’m not sure what she means when she says that if she’s delighting in God, He is “going to give me what’s in my heart.” Is this what these nineteen people had in their hearts? Was this in the pastor’s plans?
I’ve known many people and have known of people who have followed God faithfully for many, many years, who try to be more like Christ every day, who delight in Him. People who have left their jobs to work in some type of ministry, who, in following God’s lead, have uprooted themselves and their families, and are then struck by incredible tragedy.
I’ve always taken the passage about God giving us the desires of our hearts to mean that God will give us our passions, that He will wire us in ways so that these things become our desires. And in pursuing those ways that He wires us with all our hearts, that is how we glorify Him. Just as Eric Liddell did. Sometimes, though, I think we follow a god of our own making, and not see Him for who He really is, as revealed in Scripture alone.
But that wasn’t Eric Liddell. After the Olympics, Liddell followed God to wherever He would lead him, to the place God was preparing him for all of his life, at the same time shunning a life of fame and fortune, a life of relative ease, for a life that God had made him and prepared him for. And before the Olympics, when Liddell read and studied the Bible, and was lead to believe that running on a Sunday was something God wouldn’t have him do, he didn’t do it. Even to the point of him choosing not to run in a race in which he was the best in the world.
And you know what? Facing a personal moral dilemma the way he did, few Olympians would have responded the way Liddell did. Few, actually, would have placed God in the equation at all. In fact, just before the Olympics began, I watched a BBC documentary titled “Eric Liddell: A Champion’s Life”. The Scottish host of the program said, “It’s hard to imagine another athlete taking the same stand today”, who wouldn’t play on a Sunday. I thought to myself, “Has he never heard of Scotland rugby star Euan Murray! And Eric Liddell was capped in rugby for Scotland as well!”. But society is now so disassociated from anything Christian, that to find someone who is faithful to what they see in God’s Word is something so foreign to them. So what Eric Liddell did and what Euan Murray does today are amazing in that both men place God above all else, flying in the face public opinion.
Yet the story of Liddell’s Olympic heroics tells only a small part of his amazing story. Following his stunning victory in the Olympic 400 meter dash in Paris in 1924, Liddell chose to follow God’s call as a missionary in China. His Olympic triumph only gives us a wee glimpse of what made him such a faithful man.
Here’s the rest of his story… After the race, Liddell returned to Britain a national hero, and one of the first things he had to attend was his own graduation ceremony at Edinburgh University. He was paraded around the city on the shoulders of the people, and was crowned with a laurel wreath by the head of the university, Sir Alfred Ewing. “Mr Liddell”, said Ewing, “you have shown that none could pass you– except the examiners!”
Even though he returned from the Paris Olympics a national hero, Liddell did not choose to live the life of a professional athlete, though he could easily have done so. He could have gone onto more Olympics, and had a successful career in sports, but he again chose to put God first. So, the following year, in 1925, at the age of 23, he decided to return to China, the land of his birth, to join his parents and brother on the mission field.
After fourteen days on the Trans-Siberian Railway, Liddell arrived at his destination. His first assignment was teaching at the Anglo-Chinese College in Tientsin, a school for both primary school and high school pupils. In addition to his teaching responsibilities, he was also Sunday School Superintendent at Union Church, where his father was the pastor. He also used his athletic experience to train the kids in a number of different sports. For many years, Liddell ministered among the people, often travelling on bicycle, braving constant fighting between the various Chinese factions and warlords. He even returned to Scotland on furlough, and completed his training as a minister in 1932.
In the meantime, he met a Canadian missionary, Florence Mackenzie, and they married in 1934 at the Union Church. They would have three daughters, Patricia, Heather, and Maureen, the last of whom he would not live to see. Patricia once stated that the most important thing she remembered about her parents was their great sense of joy together, and that her Dad had a great sense of humor and a deep devotion to his family.
Although the Liddell family’s happiness was an inspiration to all who saw them, civil unrest and the prospects of another world war loomed on the horizon, and this threatened their ability to remain together. As China sought to control its own destiny, fighting between Communist and nationalist factions was an ever-present worry. In addition to the internal conflict, there were also the rumblings and rumors of an invasion from the Japanese in their attempted conquest of China.
Even with these great dangers, the London Mission Society approached Liddell about the possibility of him leaving the city and ministering to those in the war-torn countryside. Siao Chang, on northern China’s Great Plain, was one of the hardest hit areas. Eric’s older brother Rob was already working as a doctor in the hospital there, and Eric agreed to join him. It was, however, not an easy decision. He knew that it would be unsafe to bring Florence and the girls to Siao Chang, so he reluctantly parted with them.
In December of 1937, Liddell boarded a boat to make the ten day journey to Siao Chang. There he stayed in the mission compound he had lived in as a wee boy. The Chinese called him by the same name they had once called his father‚ “Li Mu Shi”. “Li” was a shortened form of his last name, and “Mu Shi” was the Chinese term for “pastor”.
Upon his arrival, Liddell was faced with the enormity of the task to which he had been appointed. Siao Chang was the center for mission activity in the surrounding area of over ten thousand…not people, but ten thousand…villages. Liddell’s responsibilities included travelling from village to village, encouraging the Chinese Christians and holding evangelistic meetings for those who had never heard the Gospel. He and his interpreter travelled the countryside on bicycle, and his influence was quickly felt in this vast war-torn region.
After serving in that area for two years, away from his family and without much of a break, Eric returned to his family, and they all left China on furlough in 1939. With the world going to war, they took Patricia and Heather to meet family members in both Canada and Britain.
But when they returned to China a year later, in 1940, they found that the unrest and violence had greatly increased while they were gone. When Eric, by himself, returned to Siao Chang, he discovered it was now occupied by the Japanese military, and conditions had deteriorated considerably.
A mere five months after his return to Siao Chang, the Japanese ordered all foreigners to evacuate the area. Though he remained, it was soon evident to Liddell that it was not safe to go out there. He was shot at on the road, and when he witnessed a doctor being beaten by a Japanese soldier, he realized that even the hospital was not a safe place to be.
Returning to Tientsen to be with his family, Eric realized that conditions were really not much better there. In 1941, life in China had become increasingly dangerous to the point that the British government advised all British nationals and their families to leave. They were expecting their third child at that point, and Eric and Florence decided that it would be better for her and the girls to leave China. Eric would stay in China and continue his ministry, but the rest of his family would travel to Canada and remain there with Florence’s family until the end of World War II. So Florence and the girls departed, not knowing it would be the last time they would ever see Eric alive again. And Eric would never meet his third daughter.
After his family left China, Eric returned to Siao Chang after accepting a new position at a rural mission station that ministered to the poor. He again joined his brother, Rob. The station was severely short of help and the missionaries there were exhausted, as a constant stream of locals came at all hours for medical treatment. Liddell arrived at the station just in time to relieve his brother, who was ill and needing to go on furlough. Liddell suffered many hardships himself in his time at the mission.
As all of this was going on, the war between the Chinese and the Japanese had escalated even further. By 1942, it seemed to Liddell that he could no longer minister effectively in China. The Japanese had banned meetings of more than ten people and quarantined most foreigners within electrified fences.
Liddell had hopes that he would soon be able to join his family in Canada, but in March of 1943, all foreigners that Japan considered enemies were detained in the Weihsien Internment Camp. He was detained with the members of the China Inland Mission, the Chefoo School, and many others, including many children and teenagers. Liddell would never see freedom again.
But rather than resenting his captivity, however, Liddell, like the Apostle Paul, saw it as an opportunity. He became a leader at the camp, and helped get it organized as food, medicines, and other supplies were in short supply.
Liddell arose each morning to study his Bible, and was described as “the cheer of the camp”. He busied himself by helping the elderly, teaching Bible classes, arranging games and activities, and teaching the children in a makeshift school. He found numerous ways to minister, especially to the young people, who called him “Uncle Eric”. When one of the teenage girls expressed an interest in chemistry, Liddell took it upon himself to organize a chemistry class. Since there were no textbooks or supplies, he spent hours sketching equipment and detailing the results of experiments they could not perform. He also organized athletic events for the children, and his door was always open to any of them who needed him. His fellow prisoners would remember him as a man who did whatever he could to help people, and they were especially impressed by the way he lived out his faith. He seemed to be a living example of the Sermon on the Mount.
While Liddell was helping the children of the Weihsien Internment Camp, his own children, though, were missing him almost as much as he was missing them. Eric’s oldest daughter, Patricia, often wondered why her father could not be with her. This question remained unanswered in her mind for many years until she met the children her father helped at Weihsien. Many of them were separated from their parents, and Patricia realized that God had used her father to help ease their suffering in an extremely difficult situation.
In the winter of 1944, Liddell’s friends began to notice a great change in him. His quick wit had slowed, and he thought before speaking, something they were not used to. Liddell was not one to complain, but he mentioned suffering from severe headaches with increasing frequency. It became evident that he was severely ill. He was soon confined to the infirmary, and his health quickly deteriorated. Knowing this, some of his friends who had formed a Salvation Army Band stood outside his window to play for him. Liddell requested to hear Sibelius’s “Finlandia”, usually sung with the words to “Be Still, My Soul”. The lyrics to this hymn would turn out to be a particularly poignant memory for the people close to him at the camp, in that that Liddell would die only a few weeks later.
In February 1945, shortly after his 43rd birthday, desperately thin, dressed in rags, and suffering from debilitating headaches, nausea, and seizures, Eric Liddell died as a prisoner of war. Others who were in the same camp stated that Liddell maintained his faith, courage, and kindness towards others until the end, in spite of the great suffering he was experiencing. Liddell’s last words, spoken to a camp nurse, were, “It’s complete surrender.”. He died knowing that he had lived the life that God had wanted him to.
It is no wonder then that one of his fellow internees, Norman Cliff, would later speak so highly of Liddell in a book about his experiences in the camp, The Courtyard of the Happy Way (which the Chinese translated as The Campus of Loving Truth). He described Liddell as, “the finest Christian gentleman it has been my pleasure to meet. In all the time in the camp, I never heard him say a bad word about anybody”.
Langdon Gilkey, who also survived the camp and became a prominent writer in his native America, said of Liddell, “Often in an evening I would see him bent over a chessboard or a model boat, or directing some sort of square dance– absorbed, weary, and interested, pouring all of himself into this effort to capture the imagination of these penned-up youths. He was overflowing with good humour and love for life, and with enthusiasm and charm. It is rare indeed that a person has the good fortune to meet a saint, but he came as close to it as anyone I have ever known.”
Gilkey was later to write, “The entire camp, especially its youth, was stunned for days, so great was the vacuum that Eric’s death had left”.
In his last letter to his wife, written on the day he died, Liddell wrote that he thought he was suffering a nervous breakdown due to overwork. But, in actuality, he was suffering from a brain tumor. Many believe that overwork and malnourishment hastened his death. He died on February 21, 1945, five months before the camp’s liberation. He was greatly mourned not only at the Weihsien Internment Camp, but also in Scotland.
In the report of his death, The Guardian newspaper wrote, “He is remembered among lovers of athletics as probably the ugliest runner who ever won an Olympic championship. 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, he moved the Americans and other sophisticated experts to ribald laughter.”. Rival Harold Abrahams said in response to criticism of Liddell’s style: “People may shout their heads off about his appalling style. Well, let them. He gets there.”
Fifty-six years after the 1924 Paris Olympics, Scotsman Allan Wells won the 100 metre sprint at the 1980 Moscow Olympics, the very race Liddell would have won. When asked after the victory if he had run the race for Harold Abrahams, the last 100 metre Olympic winner from Britain– in 1924– who had died two years previous, Wells replied, “No,…I would prefer to dedicate this to Eric Liddell…”.
A living memorial, the Eric Liddell Centre, an Edinburgh based charity, was set up in 1980 to honour Liddell’s beliefs in community service while he lived and studied in Edinburgh. The charity was started by local residents dedicated to inspiring, empowering, and supporting people of all ages, cultures, and abilities, as an expression of Christian values. It continues to flourish today.
Liddell was buried in the garden behind the Japanese officers’ quarters at the Weihsien Internment Camp, his grave marked by a small wooden cross. But his gravesite was forgotten until it was rediscovered in 1989, in the grounds of what is now Weifeng Middle School. He is now interred at the Mausoleum of Martyrs.
In 1991, a memorial headstone, made from Isle of Mull granite and carved by a mason in Tobermory, was unveiled at the former campsite. It was erected by Edinburgh University. A few simple words taken from the Book of Isaiah 40v31 formed the inscription: But those who wait on the Lord Shall renew their strength; They shall mount up with wings like eagles, They shall run and not be weary, They shall walk and not faint.
One of his daughters also presented the headmaster of the school with one of the medals that her father had won for athletics. In Scotland in 2002, in the initial public vote for the very first inductees into the Scottish Sports Hall of Fame, Eric Liddell was voted the most popular athlete that Scotland had ever produced. In 2005, as part of the 60th anniversary of the Allied liberation of the internment camp, the city of Weifang commemorated the life of Liddell by laying a wreath at the memorial marking his grave.
In 2008, just before the Beijing Olympics, Chinese authorities revealed that Winston Churchill had organized a prisoner exchange with the Japanese and that Liddell had refused the opportunity to be released, instead giving his place to a pregnant woman. His freedom was arranged by none other than the British Prime Minister, yet he let another go in his place.
And before the Beijing Olympics, because of his birth and death in China, their Olympic literature listed Liddell as their first Olympic champion. As of 2009, Liddell is honored with a feast day in the liturgical calendar of the Episcopal Church (USA) on February 22. I’m not sure if he would want such a thing, as it focuses on him, but it’s good to see his legacy continuing to this day.
During the 2012 London Olympics, much has been spoken of “Legacy” and “Inspiring A Generation”. Liddell’s legacy is that he continues to inspire many a generation. And it’s not because of how he ran a race one day eighty-eight years ago, but how he ran the race of life, how he focused on the eternal, on the things that really matter. The legacy of Eric Liddell continues to this day, all because he placed God first, above all else…
In reference to how he had given his entire life to God, Eric Liddell’s last words were on this Earth were, “It’s complete surrender”. His last words were words of his faith in Christ.
On April 6, 1923, in a small town hall in Armadale, Scotland, Eric Liddell spoke for the first time of his faith in Christ. Eighty people came to hear Scotland’s famous runner give his testimony.
Catherine Swift, in her biography of Liddell, wrote of the first time she saw him speak. She wrote: “Shyly, he stepped forward and for a few seconds surveyed his waiting audience, then he began. There was no lecturing, no fist thumping on the table, no wagging or pointing a finger to stress a point, no raised voice to impress on them what he thought they should be doing. In fact, it wasn’t a speech at all. It was more of a quiet chat, and in his slow clear words, Eric for the first time in his life told the world what God meant to him. He spoke of the strength he felt within himself from the sure knowledge of God’s love and support. Of how he never questioned anything that happened either to himself or to others. He didn’t need explanations from God. He simply believed in Him and accepted whatever came.”.
That is how we are to live our lives, with complete surrender to God. When we do that, when we live our lives in complete abandonment to God, we don’t waste any time worrying about seeking explanations from God as to why He has done what He has done, or why He’s doing what He’s doing. Perhaps that is what true faith is, to trust in God even when we don’t understand the circumstances of our lives, when we don’t see things as clearly as we’d like. That’s living out your faith, knowing that while we walk through the valley of the shadow, God is with us. He doesn’t promise that we’re exempt from even the worst things in this life, only that He will be with us. To live that way, with such unwavering trust, is true faith. That is, as Eric Liddell says, that is “complete surrender”. Let us pray…
–Chariots Of Fire (film)
–Eric Liddell: A Champion’s Life (BBC documentary)
–Eric Liddell (Men of Faith) by Catherine Swift (book)