When I was a kid, my friends and I dreamed of athletic glory. We’d imagine ourselves as the heroes of the World Series, the Super Bowl, and the Olympics. And after a long summer day of pretend stardom, we’d run home in slow motion, humming the theme from “Chariots of Fire” along the way. That song by Vangelis was iconic; it was practically synonymous with athletic heroism.
Years later, I saw the Chariots of Fire movie. I loved the storyline of athletic valor and moral courage at the Olympic Games. If you’ve seen the movie, you might think you know the story of Eric Liddell. But there was far more to his life than that movie or that Olympics. As brilliant as the “Flying Scotsman” was on the track, his lifetime of service to God shone far brighter.
Eric Liddell was born in China in 1902, the son of Scottish missionaries. At the age of 6, Eric was sent to boarding school in London, where he remained until going to college at the University of Edinburgh. During his school days, he was the captain of the cricket and rugby teams, in addition to being a star runner.
As serious as Liddell was about athletics, he was even more serious about his Christian faith. In college, he traveled all over Scotland as the lead speaker for the Glasgow Students’ Evangelistic Union, sharing his faith.
As the 1924 Olympics approached, Liddell was a top runner on the British track team. However, when he learned that the 100-meter race — his best event — would be held on Sunday, he faced a painful decision. Without hesitation, Liddell declared that he could not run on the Sabbath.
The public protested his decision. The British Olympic Association, and even the Prince of Wales, tried to talk him out of it. But Liddell remained firm; racing on the Sabbath was out of the question.
With the 100-meter off the table, Liddell instead ran in the 400-meter race, winning the gold medal with a world-record time of 47.6 seconds. He also competed in the 200-meter event and won bronze.
As remarkable as Liddell’s Olympic decision was, what came next was even more remarkable. In 1925, he left competitive running behind and moved to China to become a missionary, following in his parents’ footsteps. He continued this work for the rest of his life.
Asked if he regretted giving up life as an athlete, Liddell responded: “It’s natural for a chap to think over all that sometimes, but I’m glad I’m at the work I’m engaged in now. A fellow’s life counts for far more at this than the other.”
During his early years as a missionary, he taught at a school in Tianjin. He also trained Chinese boys in sports and served as superintendent of the local Sunday school. He became an ordained minister in 1932 and married Florence McKenzie, the daughter of Canadian missionaries, a couple years later.
In the late 1930s, Liddell was called to serve at a rural mission in Xiaozhang, ministering to the poor. During this time, the Japanese Empire began invading China, and the situation grew steadily more dangerous. But Liddell and his fellow missionaries continued their work.
After the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, the British government ordered its citizens in China to leave the country. Florence and the Liddell’s children fled to Canada, but Eric remained, providing desperately needed medical care to the locals, who came to the mission throughout the day and night seeking aid.
In 1943, Liddell was placed in an internment camp. He quickly became a leader in the camp, providing assistance to the elderly, teaching science to the children, and giving classes on the Bible. Even in the direst of circumstances, he remained true to his faith. When some rich businessmen managed to smuggle food into camp, Liddell shamed them into sharing with the other prisoners.
Liddell’s fellow prisoners admired his faith and leadership. One prisoner, Langdon Gilkey, described Liddell as “overflowing with good humour and love for life” and said, “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.” Another prisoner described Liddell as “Jesus in running shoes.”
Unfortunately, Liddell also suffered from an inoperable brain tumor, and he was exhausted from working so hard. He died in February 1945, just weeks before the camp was liberated.
Eric Liddell remains an inspiration even decades after his death. In 2002, he was voted the greatest Scottish sporting hero of all time. But though he is best remembered for his Olympic achievements, he understood very well that the glory of athletic triumph pales in comparison to the glory of God.
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