It is often the case that the greatest athletes – those who genuinely make history – achieve much beyond their athletic feats. Their sport might have brought them fame, but their worthiest contributions come from elsewhere. For example, a while ago, I wrote about Roger Bannister, who considered his neurological research to be more significant than his four-minute mile. For these individuals, their training and competition has helped them to develop and showcase their virtues, but their virtues transcend it.
Eric Liddell was, first, a virtuous man. Second, he was the greatest sprinter of his time. He is best known to us from the film Chariots of Fire which follows him and his ‘rival’, Harold Abrahams, in the 1924 Olympics. It is one of my favourite films, and indeed it has influenced me considerably in life, but it misses out some crucial aspects of the story and many of the most significant parts of Liddell’s life.
Liddell was, as most of us know, a devoted Christian. In 1 Corinthians (9:25, NIV) Paul writes, “Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever.” It is plain to see which of these crowns was Eric Liddell’s purpose in life, from the way he lived it.
Although he had been successful in school, Liddell only started training seriously while at university as both a sprinter and a rugby player. He quickly became the fastest man in Scotland and represented them in the rugby Five Nations. It took a while before he was rated outside of Scotland. That happened in 1923 after he beat Abrahams in the British championships and gained a British record for the 100 yards. This performance led to him being recognised as the favourite for the 100m at the Olympics, as well as the 200m and the relays.
As it happened, the Olympic schedule included qualifying heats for the 100m and relays on Sunday. Being a Christian of strong conviction, he refused to participate on the Sabbath and so was subjected to a campaign of abuse. He was called a traitor, a fool or a coward. Why else would a great athlete sacrifice his chance of glory? His principles, and the everlasting crown, were more important.
He did, however, compete in the 200m and the 400m. In the former, he was beaten to third. The 400m had become his focus, though he was not recognised as a contender. Even in the qualifying rounds he was not picked out as a favourite, as the world record was broken twice by other athletes.
In the final, he was in the outside lane. He would not see the other athletes until after the race. He started fast, unbelievably, while others tried to build their speed more gradually. He left the rest behind. When the next man, Horatio Fitch, appeared to be coming back to him entering the finishing straight, Liddell impossibly accelerated. In his own words, “The secret of my success over the 400 metres is that I run the first 200 metres as fast as I can. Then, for the second 200 metres, with God’s help, I run faster.”
That race is the climax of Chariots of Fire and understandably his most famous achievement. He took a bronze and a gold medal from the 1924 Olympics. He could have taken much more. A few weeks later he took part in a relays match against the United States and won spectacularly in both the 4x100m and 4x400m. He then took up his calling of becoming a missionary in China.
His work involved teaching in school and church as well as supporting the local population. He taught religion and chemistry (his degree subject) and he instructed his students in sports and was involved in the design of a new stadium there. He was well-loved by many of the locals, not so much for his athletics fame but for his kindness and compassion. He considered this all far more important than his athletics, saying, “A fellow’s life counts for far more at this than the other.”
He continued to run but competition was hard to find and his work deprived him of the opportunity to pursue athletics seriously. By the time of the 1928 Olympics, he was still seen as a potential favourite but was unable to qualify and compete. The 400m was won by an American named Ray Barbuti. Barbuti later toured China and competed against an out of practice Liddell, expecting to win comfortably. Liddell beat him. Barbuti suggested that Liddell, if he had been there, could have possibly won not only the 400m but also other events at the last Olympics. Even if he had not continued competing, he could have lived off his Olympic success. His firm conviction not to run on Sunday and then his 400m win had, eventually, made him a hero. Yet the only advantage he took was to accept invitations to speak, so that he could further his missionary work.
Eric Liddell was in China at the outbreak of World War II and, though he had evacuated his family, was himself caught up and became a civilian internee of the Japanese. In the camp, he offered pastoral care and comfort to the others and organised sports days. He recognised the benefit sport can have to emotional and mental wellbeing. He ran himself, usually giving competitors a head start and still beating them, despite now being in his 40s. He was a fierce competitor whenever he ran, always striving to get the best from himself.
In his last race there, he was finally beaten. He died shortly after, having developed a brain tumour. Medical treatment in the internment camp was very limited and any symptoms had been dismissed as normal for the poor conditions of the camp.
He had lived his life selflessly and with purpose. When competing he pushed himself beyond the limits of others but he was always quick to praise and congratulate those others. Harold Abrahams wanted to beat his competitors, and was particularly obsessed with trying to beat Liddell – something he never really did – whereas Liddell simply wanted to win the race. This did not end with athletics but he unfailing prayed for his Japanese captors.
We know him as an athlete but he knew himself as a follower of Christ. His athletics was primarily a part of his worship. In Chariots of Fire, his character says, “I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run I feel His pleasure.”