Olympic Champion for Christ: Eric Liddel

By Peter Hong

“God made me for a purpose. For China. But He also made me fast. And when I run, I feel His pleasure.”

These are the words spoken by Ian Charleson in his portrayal of Scottish missionary-Olympian Eric Liddell in the 1981 Academy Award-winning film Chariots of Fire. While Liddell is best remembered, largely due to the film, as a gold medal winner in the 400-meter race in the 1924 Paris Olympics, his primary mission in life — from birth to death — was as a Christian missionary in China. In fact, because he was born and died and spent the bulk of his life in China, Liddell is listed in some Chinese Olympic literature as China’s first Olympic champion.

Born on January 16, 1902 in Tientsin, China to the Reverend and Mrs. James Dunlop Liddel, Eric Liddell spent the first five years of his life in China, before being enrolled in a London boarding school for the children of missionaries. Always a stellar athlete, Liddell developed great renown as a leading rugby and cricket player, a star in the backline for Scotland’s national union rugby team.

But it was Liddell’s speed as a runner that made him famous. At the University of Edinburgh. A sprinter, Liddell quickly became known as the fastest man in Scotland and earned the nickname “The Flying Scot.” Many admirers of Liddell speculated with good reason that Liddell could sprint a path for Scotland all the way to the Olympic games. For the Scottish people, Liddell became a national hero — a multi-sport star athlete, much like a combination of a Carl Lewis with a Bo Jackson or Deion Sanders.

But in spite of the fame and notoriety, Liddell’s first priority was always Jesus Christ and the Gospel. As a leading speaker for the Glasgow Students’ Evangelistic Union, Liddell would evangelize, using his national renown to draw a large crowd of men (and women).

As mentioned in the film, God’s Kingdom work in Scotland needed a “muscular Christian” to spread the Gospel throughout the nation. Liddell knew that God gives athletes talent and fame not to glorify themselves, but to glorify Him. To the film’s credit, it shows several scenes of Liddell preaching to his fans about God, following the races he ran (and won).

In 1924, selected for Scotland’s national team in the Paris Olympics, Liddell drew international notoriety when he refused to run in a heat for the 100-meter race, his best event, because it fell on Sunday. Knowing that God was the source of his great talent and ability, Liddell took a dramatic step of faith, putting in grave jeopardy his and his nation’s dreams of a gold medal. But as a Christian, Liddell’s top priority was never personal glory or the praise of men, but the glory of God.

Instead, Liddell trained and qualified for the 400 meters, a middle-distance event that was not tailor-made for his natural abilities as a sprinter. On the morning of the 400 meters final, Liddell was handed a folded square of paper by one of the team masseurs. Reading it later he found the message: “In the old book, it says: ‘He that honours me I will honour.’ Wishing you the best of success always.” Recognizing the reference to 1 Samuel 2:30, Liddell was profoundly moved that someone other than his coach believed in him and the stance he had taken.Inspired by the Biblical message and deprived of a view of the other runners because he drew the outside lane, Liddell raced the first half of the race to be well clear of his opponents. With little option but to then treat the race as a complete sprint, he continued to race around the final bend. He was challenged all the way down the home straight, but held on to take the win and break the Olympic and world records with a time of 47.6 seconds. Depicted in one of the most memorable scenes from Chariots of Fire, Liddell’s Gold-winning, record-setting feat glorified God before the entire world.

While the Oscar-winning film detailing Liddell’s career as an Olympian concluded with his triumphant return from Paris, Eric Liddell’s life did not end there. In fact, God started a new season in his life, one that would continue for the duration of his life. For the next 18 years until his death in 1943, Liddell served his true calling: as a Christian missionary in China.

By 1941 life in China had become so dangerous because of Japanese aggression that the British government advised British nationals to leave. Sending his wife and children to Canada, Liddell accepted a position at a rural mission station in Xiaozhang, serving the poor and suffering many hardships himself.

In 1943, he was interned in Weifang, where not surprisingly, Liddell became a leader and organizer at the camp, busying himself by helping the elderly, teaching Bible classes at the camp school, arranging games, and teaching science to the children, who referred to him as Uncle Eric. What a surprise it must have been to his students to learn their “Uncle Eric” was an Olympic gold medalist and record holder. And what a shock it would have been for Liddell’s fellow Scots to see their national hero serving the Chinese people in the name of Jesus Christ, instead of on a pedestal.

Noted American theologian Landon Gilkey, who was interned with Liddell and survived the camp, said of Liddell: “Often in an evening I would see him bent over a chessboard or a model boat, or directing some sort of square dance – absorbed, weary and interested, pouring all of himself into this effort to capture the imagination of these penned-up youths. He was overflowing with good humour and love for life, and with enthusiasm and charm. 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.”

Suffering from a brain tumor, aggravated by malnourishment and exhaustion, Liddell died on February 21, 1945, five months before liberation. Of Liddell’s death, Gilkey later wrote, “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”, in reference to how he had given his life to God.”

While many top-level athletes — amateur, professional, or Olympian — “retire” at a young age to a life of endorsements, autograph seekers, and memories of whom they once were, Liddell chose the narrow path less taken.

In every aspect of his life — as an athlete, a national hero, an Olympian, an evangelist, a missionary — Eric Liddell demonstrated excellence, intentionality, and perseverance in all he did. As the actor portraying his missionary father in Chariots of Fire declared, “You can praise God by peeling a spud if you peel it to perfection. Don’t compromise. Compromise is a language of the devil. Run in God’s name and let the world stand back in wonder.”

Liddell’s life and death are encapsulated in a prayer attributed to him:
“Father, I pray that no circumstances, however bitter or however long drawn out, may cause me to break thy law, the law of love to thee and to my neighbor. That I may not become resentful, have hurt feelings, hate, or become embittered by life’s experiences, but that in and through all, I may see thy guiding hand and have a heart full of gratitude for thy daily mercy, daily love, daily power and daily presence. Help me in the day when I need it most to remember that:
“All things work to the good for those in Christ that love God.” Romans 8:28
“I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.” Philippians 4:13
“[God said] My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in thy weakness.” II Corinthians 12:9.

Like his Savior, Lord, and God, Eric Liddell, chose to yield his life, ambitions, passions, and desires to pursue the Kingdom of God and His righteousness. On earth, it led him to an untimely death in an internment camp in war-torn China, far from his beloved family and his countrymen who adored him. In heaven it led to his true King, Jesus Christ, welcoming Eric to the eternal Kingdom with the words, “Well done, good and faithful servant!”