Eric Liddell – China’s first Olympic gold

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.

8 Responses to “Eric Liddell – China’s first Olympic gold”

  1. Ed Ward Says:

    One of the greatest stories ever told and ‘Chariots’ is one of the greatest movies ever made. And the later is a testament of God’s will to have this story reach a broad audience…the movie was writtten and produced by non-believers! Amazing that the gospel and the truth are presented so accurately and winsomely…had to be God’s special intervention! If you haven’t seen this movie…you simply must!

  2. Randy Goodrich Says:

    Happy to have stumbled upon your timely messages honoring this great athlete (I can’t imagine ever running a 47 second quarter mile even with our latest high tech shoes and track surfaces). Eric truly was a loyal servant of God and His children. He continues to inspire the world!

    So glad to see Eric’s legacy live on….his bright spirit’s fire revived perhaps even more since the Beijing Games. Here is something that I wrote very recently:

    If you ever need a pick-me-up just grab a copy of “Chariots of Fire” and immerse yourself in a classic film made on a relatively small budget by Fayad in just a matter of days. The screenplay, scenery and music are worthy of your time whether a runner or not.

    The Academy Award winning Best Picture tackles social and religious issues while abiding by historical facts (imagine a Jewish runner and a coach of Arabic descent!) We sorely need more movies of this stature. Watch it again and again, you’ll get hooked! Superbly cast, these most capable actors make otherwise ordinary scenes bring tears to your eyes, smiles to your lips and a longing for more movies like this!

    Great direction and editing. Watch how the storm clears up as Eric gives his post-race speech.

    God honored Eric for honoring His name (and keeping His day holy)

    Atta boy Harold! Heads up Eric!

    Thanks for providing a forum for sharing thoughts on a great man and on one of the finer movies ever produced.

    Randal Beesley Goodrich
    Bountiful, Utah

  3. Keith Hendry Says:

    I would just like to inform everyone, Eric Liddell was a proud Scotsman & did not run for England, I know no Scot who would! He did run for Britain in the 1924 Olympics but he had in the past run for his country of origin even though he was oriental born. Eric Liddell ran for Scotland & above all Eric Liddell ran for God & he ran like a God. God bless you Eric you made all Scots proud you were one of us, our favourite son.

    • Little Dragon Says:

      You’re right about one thing

      Eric Liddell did “run for God and let the whole world stand back and watch.”

      And you’re right that he was Scots – so he competed for Scotland and for Britain – but never for England.

      But I don’t think you can say he ran for his country of origin.

      His family was Scots. His ancestors were Scots.
      But he was born in China.

      So I think you have to say that country of origin, the land of his birth, was China.

  4. Adam Hoffman Says:

    There is a new movie coming out that is the sequel to Chariots of Fire called “The Flying Man” coming out that will tell the story after the 1924 Olympics and his adult life in China. I blogged about a report of this movie from Mission Frontiers . Just wanted to let you know to look out for it.

  5. haresh k vaswani Says:

    Though Eric did not belong to the Chinese race, he started the real race for the Chinese……. Not by the Scotish (Might) not by the Olympic (Power) but by the Spirit of the Lord shall the race of the Chinese race be WON in Jesus name !!!

  6. White Man Says:

    The really ironic part of the story wasn’t in the film. In the 1928 Olympics, Britain did not recall Eric from China to run for them, so he competed nationally at a meet held in China at the same time the Olympics were being held in Amsterdam. Eric won, with a time that would have beat the gold medalist back at the Olympics!

    It’s got to be the only time the fastest runner in the world wasn’t even asked to compete for his own country in the Olympics.

  7. Peter Cooper Says:

    May I update this Eric Liddell related thread. I accompanied author John Keddie (Running the race – Eric Liddell Olympic Champion and Missionary) to China as we promoted and launched the Chinese translation. (details on blog). Part of our ongoing development and promotion is an immerisive art installation (Run the race dome), which features footage of Eric Liddell and tells his story both from his sporting/Olympic achievements and subsequent service in China.

    We are working in conjunction with Nottingham Trent University interactive Arts and other Creatives, including a possible collaboration with a Chinese University.

    Run the race is designed as an immerisve visual and sonic installation that focuses on the story of Eric Liddells life. Liddell has inspired many people for decades, his dedication, sportsmanship and witness has left a lasting legacy throughout the world. But most noticably in China where he served.

    The new media technonlogy utilized in the dome will, we hope be an attraction to young and old. up to 40 people can be accomodated.

    The (dome) installation can tour to various locations, ie shopping malls, art spaces, sport venues. The core content will be Eric Liddell focused. but there is scope in the narrative to make changes to accomodate any country or sponsor. In the case of the Chinese we are hoping to tell the story of the Olympic movement in China from its earliest days through to Beijing and beyond. We met with Mr Zhang Yuanlong (Tianjin City) who is the grandson of Zhang Boling the man who brought the Olympics to China. We introduced the dome installation during the games to much interest (even at that early embryonic stage) We plan follow up the interest shown with a more detailed pitch to the interested parties for Chinese funding/commitment.

    We have been offered funding which enables us to start the project (UK).
    However we are continuing to seek further funding for the project, please forward info to any you think may be interested. Please contact me for detailed (PDF) of content and specifications for the Immersive installation.

    The witness of Eric Liddell continues to build bridges to this very day and doors are opened as a result.

    Some churches in London are hoping to use the dome as an introduction to the life and witness of Eric Liddell during the 2012 Games.

    As John Keddie was an advisor to the movie Chariots of fire he continues with us on this project.

    Thank you
    Peter Cooper

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