Happy Birthday, Olympic Champion Eric Liddell

I know that God has made me for a purpose. But he has also made me fast. And when I run, I feel his pleasure.
– Eric Liddell, Chariots of Fire*

(*I was disappointed to learn recently that this fantastic quote, which I have often re-purposed for my own ends, was never spoken by Liddell. It was invented by Colin Welland, scriptwriter for the awesome Chariots of Fire. I still consider it one of the most inspirational lines ever scripted.)

Today is the birthday of one of the finest athletes of the 20th century. Eric Liddell, born Jan 16, 1902, is fondly remembered by sports historians and admirers not only for his laughably ugly running style, but also for his deep faith and life-long devotion to the Lord. Recently, I came across a collection of quotations* both by and about the great Scottish athlete. An inspiring and humble champion by all accounts, Eric’s godly character made a profound impression on all who met him – teammates and opponents alike. Take a few moments to read these recollections (some of which moved me to tears), and you will begin to get a glimpse of the gentle power of this inspiring young man.

A newspaper account describes one particular race Eric ran – the 440 yards at Stoke on Trent:

“The circumstances in which he won made it a performance bordering on the miraculous. The runners were started on the bend, Liddell having the inside berth, but the Scot had only taken three strides when Gillis (England) crashed into him and knocked him off the track. He stumbled on the grass, and for a moment seemed half inclined to give it up. Then suddenly he sprang forward and was after his opponents like a flash. By this time the leaders were about twenty yards ahead, but Liddell gradually drew up on them, and by the time the home stretch was reached he was running fourth. He would be about 10 yards behind Gillis then. It seemed out of the question that he could win, but he achieved the apparently impossible. Forty yards from home he was third, and seemed on the point of collapsing, but, pulling himself together, he put in a desperate finish to win by two yards from Gillis.”

One of his teammates describes his reaction to Eric’s achievement:

“I was a team-mate of his at Stoke – what a memory that has been to me, as with such a close view of Eric in his 440 yards epic, he had my heart pounding as it has not done since. When he collapsed I was one of those who helped him to the pavilion, and on the suggestion of a drop of brandy to revive him, he semi-consciously remarked to me, ‘No, thanks, jimmy, just a drop of strong tea. To me and to many others Eric was not only a first class sportsman; he was an inspiration to all with whom he came in contact. In 1925, when he left for China, Scotland lost and has never regained a personality in the truest sense of the word, and I lost but can never forget the one I consider could never have had an enemy.”

At another race, Eric was the anchor in a 4×440 relay in which his teammates had left him with a huge deficit. A spectator recalls the race:

“He was left with a gap of 40 yards to make up. When making his effort he had a habit of jerking back his head. A Glasgow man standing next to me had been following the racing all afternoon with the keenest attention. I remarked that Liddell would be hard put to win. My neighbour, an observant fellow, replied, ‘His heid’s no back yet.’ With that, back went the head, and Liddell left his opponent standing, to win by 20 yeards.”

Once, when asked by a reporter how he managed to keep his fantastic pace with such a curious style, Eric replied:

“The secret of my success over the 400 metres is that I run the first 200 metres as hard as I can. Then, for the second 200 metres, with God’s help, I run harder.”

But beyond his extraordinary grit and strength as an athlete, it was his exceptional humility that powerfully impacted all who encountered him. A fellow runner recalls one particular race:

“Eric had brought a small trowel with him to dig his holes for starting and he carefully went from one to another of his opponents in the race, and offered each the use of his trowel. Most of them accepted.… [Thus] prepared, he walked to each opponent again, and shook hands with him, smiling his very sunny smile. He then got ‘on his marks’ with them, was off at the gun, and won a very fine race from the outside berth. I had heard a lot a lot about him, and now I had seen him. I came away feeling that I had witnessed a gentleman doing all that a gentleman should do. Afterwards, when I heard he had gone to China, I realised that I had been watching a Christian in action.”

Of course, this type of behavior was not reserved only for the watching crowds. Another competitor recalls a similar exchange:

“Eric Liddell whom I had met and competed against the year before at St Andrews, was an Edinburgh competitor and I was representing Aberdeen. Towards the end of the sports I was, rather thoughtlessly, sitting on the cold turf wearing nothing but singlet, shorts and spiked shoes, and waiting for the last event of the afternoon to start. Liddell strolling in my direction, saw me sitting and, to my surprise, took off his Edinburgh blue blazer and placed it over my shoulders to keep me warm. He did this with a smile and a word of advice about avoiding cold. A small enough gesture, it might be said, but a spontaneous Christ-like one towards one who was virtually a stranger from another ‘Varsity. I have never forgotten this kindly act, and not by any means only because Eric Liddell afterwards became so famous. Incidentally, it was an unforgettable experience to run against Liddell. I did so once at St Andrews, and ran third to him, but a very far behind third at that. For most of us, a rear view of our great rival was all we had after the starter’s pistol had sent us off.”

Liddell’s own quotations typically contain far fewer words than those of his admirers, but his character shone through nonetheless. Once, when compelled to make a short speech, after being carried aloft by cheering crowds and fellow students to the doors of the University chapel, Eric rose and said:

“Over the gate of Pennsylvania University are inscribed these words, ‘In the dust of defeat as well as in the laurels of victory there is a glory to be found if one has done his best.”

But perhaps the most defining quote came when, after tireless training and work, Eric finally made it to the 1924 Olympics. But when the Olympic timetables were released, which announced that the preliminary 100 meters heats were scheduled on a Sunday (a day to be hallowed, in Eric’s reverent theology), he replied simply and firmly:

“I’m not running.”

[Spoiler alert:] Of course, if you’ve seen the movie you know that Eric did run – in an alternate mid-week race – and won in world record time. And less than two weeks later he stood amid the cheers of adoring fans and was asked to speak. Dr. Norman Maclean describes the moment:

“It was a difficult task amid that enthusiasm. Eventually the shouting and the cheering ceased, and he began to speak…. He made us quickly realise that running was not to be his career. He was training to be a missionary in China, and until then he would devote all his spare time doing evangelistic work among the young men in Scotland. And he asked our help and our sympathy. What a hush suddenly fell. The Olympic Games were forgotten; the olive crowns and the thunder of cheers; and we saw this young man go forth on his mission…. It is because he has mastered himself, and has guided his course by the eternal Heavens, that Eric Liddell came to that laurel crown. He is running the race, and he will stay it even to the end.”

Eric, crossing the Japanese lines in 1938,
looking to my eyes a little like Chuck Norris.

Eric Henry Liddell fulfilled his dream: he became a missionary to China. He was there when WWII broke out, and stayed there despite warnings from British government of the growing danger. Eventually, he was imprisoned in a Japanese internment camp. During his time there (in a biographic detail only recently revealed by the Chinese authorities) a prisoner exchange was arranged, with Churchill’s approval, and Liddell was given an opportunity to leave the camp. But he refused, giving his place instead to a pregnant woman. He stayed in the camp and, at the age of 43, died there from a brain tumor. A biographer later reported: “The entire camp, especially its youth, was stunned for days, so great was the vacuum that Eric’s death had left.” According to a fellow missionary, Liddell’s last words were,

“It’s complete surrender.”

They could equally have been,

I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. (2 Tim 4:7)


* Most of these quotations were taken from Scotland’s Greatest Athlete: The Eric Liddell Story, by D P Thomson, and referenced on a wonderful site that contains many additional quotes. Another highly regarded biography about him,Eric Liddell: Pure Gold: A New Biography of the Olympic Champion, is now on my Amazon Wish List, as is the book Eric wrote during his time in the Japanese war-camp: The Disciplines of the Christian Life.
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