He was one of the most famous athletes of modern times and the Olympic glory of Scotland. He was also a Christian who refused to compete on Sunday and refused to compromise. Unquestionably, Eric Liddell was made to run. And yet, more than anything else, Eric Liddell believed that “God made me for China.”
The medal ceremony at the Olympics is a moment of rare pomp and ceremony in this informal age. The ceremonies represent both climax and catharsis, with athletes awarded the coveted gold, silver, and bronze medals placed around their necks.
It was not always so.
When Eric Liddell, “the Flying Scot,” won the 400 meter race and the gold medal at the 1924 games in Paris, there was no awards ceremony. Back then, the medals were engraved after the games and mailed in a simple package to the victors. But, even without the medal ceremony, there was glory. Liddell instantly became a hero to the entire United Kingdom and was recognized as one of the greatest athletes of his age.
Americans of my generation remember Eric Liddell largely because of Chariots of Fire, the 1981 British film written by Colin Welland, produced by David Puttnam, and directed by Hugh Hudson. The film was a surprising success in both Britain and the United States, winning four Academy Awards including Best Picture. The musical score for the film by Vangelis won another of the Oscars, and its theme is still instantly recognizable to those who have seen the movie.
To its credit, Chariots of Fire recognized Eric Liddell’s Christian faith and testimony. His story is inseparable from the drama of his refusal to compete on Sunday, believing it to be a breaking of God’s commandment. Though this determination was well-known before the 1924 Olympics, it became internationally famous when heats for Liddell’s best race, 100 meters, were scheduled for Sunday.
The dramatic plot of Chariots of Fire presented a personal competition between Liddell and Harold Abrahams, another top runner who had experienced the agonies of anti-Semitism as a student at Cambridge. When Liddell withdrew from the 100 meter event, Abrahams won, bringing Britain glory. Liddell had become a figure of ridicule, with everyone from athletic officials to British leaders unable to persuade him to sacrifice his moral convictions for the Olympic glory he was promised.
Liddell was left to run the 400 meter race, an event for which he was not favored and to which he knew he brought liabilities in terms of his racing form. But run he did, and he ran right into the history books, winning the gold medal with a personal story that shocked the world, even in the 1920s. His intensity of Christian conviction was already out of style and often ridiculed, but Eric Liddell became one of the most famous men in the British Empire and the larger world of athletics.
Those who have seen Chariots of Fire well remember how it ends, with the magnificent and sentimental music of Sir Hubert Parry’s anthem “Jerusalem” and William Blake’s famous words: “Bring me my Bow of burning gold; Bring me my Arrows of desire: Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold! Bring me my Chariot of fire!”
Then the screen fills with these words in text: “Eric Liddell, missionary, died in occupied China at the end of World War II. All of Scotland mourned.”
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