Although Eric Liddell ran for England in the Paris 1924 Olympics, it has been suggested that his gold medal in the 400 meters was China’s first Olympic medal. Liddell was born in China in 1902, the son of missionary parents, and he died there, too, in a Japanese prison camp in 1945. Liddell loved the Chinese people with his life of service in their country, and the Chinese people loved him back.
John Keddie was an advisor on Liddell’s character for the 1981 film Chariots of Fire, and how appropriate since Keddie, who shares Liddell’s faith as a Presbyterian minister, has been proclaimed as the foremost authority on Scottish athletics (see here). Keddie has written a recent biography on Liddell titled Running the Race: Eric Liddell–Olympic Champion and Missionary, and he helps tell the story of Liddell in the 2008 documentary Eric Liddell: Champion Of Conviction. In today’s issue of the Yorkshire Post, Keddie writes this regarding the continuing fascination with Liddell’s achievements:
But there is also the attractiveness of the character of the man who stuck to his Christian principles and consistently showed in his short life something of the character of the One whom he professed to follow and serve. And that is a challenge to an age in which Christian faith is in short supply in sport and public life in general.
UPDATE 2008-08-25: Christianity Today on Friday put out an article here on the promotion of this book–including a Chinese version–at the Beijing Olympics. Follow John Keddie’s day by day promotion of the book in China at the Evangelical Press’s blog Running the Race in China.
Reuters has an article here by Nick Mulvenney that interacts with Keddie on Liddell in relation to the Beijing Olympics and the modern world of sport. Keddie reflects…
The position of sport has changed so much, it has become almost a new religion, a form of idolatry…. It will, however, always remain in relation to ultimate issues, a triviality.
I first saw the movie Chariots of Fire, the story of “The Flying Scotsman,” Eric Liddell, and Englishman Harold Abrahams when I was 8 years old. The movie retells the story of Liddell taking the gold in the 400 meters and Abrahams getting the 100 meter gold medal. At the 1980 Moscow Olympics, another Scotsman, Allan Wells, took the gold in the 100 meters, but when asked if he had run the race for Harold Abrahams, Wells replied, “No, this one was for Eric Liddell.”
Eric Liddell has always been a hero to me, because his is a story of ultimate issues that far surpass the greatness of world fame and victory. It’s a story of discerning God’s will in the face of opposing expectations and desires. Would he go back to China, to the country of his birth to be a missionary himself, or would he run for England in the 1924 Olympic games?
In the movie, his sister had one idea about what it meant to serve God and it did not include running. But Eric’s outlook was one of enjoying God and doing what he knew would bring God pleasure. One day when Eric showed up late to set up for a church meeting, his sister started in on him…
“Training, training, training. All I ever hear is training. Do you believe in what we’re doing here or not? … Your mind’s not with us any more, son. It’s full of running and starting and medals and pace. It’s so full of it, you’ve no room for standing still.”
“Jennie! Don’t fret yourself.”
“I do fret myself, Eric. I’m frightened for you. I’m frightened for what it all might do to you.”
Later in the day, the movie shows Eric taking Jennie on a walk in Holyrood Park below Arthur’s Seat, the crag that overlooks Edinburgh where Eric was finishing his Chemistry degree at university…
“I’ve decided. I’m going back to China. The missionary service have accepted me.”
“Oh, I’m so pleased!”
“But I’ve got a lot of running to do first. Jennie… Jennie, you’ve got to understand. I believe that 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. You were right. It’s not just fun. To win is to honour him.
I think a lot of Christians get hung up on seeking out God’s will for their lives as though it only has to do with work, and they leave no room for simply enjoying God and enjoying his delight in seeing us experience the beauty of his creation–including the gifts and talents that he has given to us. But Eric Liddell presents a picture to us of being truly alive in Christ. Certainly that includes the transforming power of the Holy Spirit in renewing our hearts, shaping our character, and leading us in service to God and others. But it also includes, as Eric Liddell exemplifies, the pure enjoyment of God and knowing his pleasure as we experience life in this world as God intended us to live it.
Ben Witherington has a great post on Eric Liddell–as well as The Political Housewyf–in response to Mary Carillo’s tribute to him on NBC this last Saturday. Witherington ends his post by emphasizing the real greatness of Liddell’s achievements:
Though what Michael Phelps accomplished at this Olympics will long redound to his glory, what Eric Liddle did both at the 1924 Olympics and throughout his life will redound to God’s glory, and, as those bonny Scots would say, “that’s more than a wee bit greater.”
The Chariots of Fire movie script can be found and searched here.