As far as inspiring historical sports dramas go, the 1981 British award-winning classic Chariots of fire is unmatched. The movie features the inspiring true story of Eric Liddell, a devout Scottish Christian athlete who ran for God’s glory. In this article, I will be sharing three facets of Eric Liddell’s life with you, as well as three scenes from the movie (about his life) that spur me on to keep running, to keep pressing on and to never give up. I hope that you would be inspired as well.

Scene One: 58:30 — 59:10

“I believe God made me for a purpose, for China. But he also made me fast, and when I run, I feel his pleasure. To give him up will be to hold him in contempt. To win is to honour him.”

(Liddell says these words to his sister, Jenny, who did not agree with his decision to run in the 1924 Olympics in Paris ahead of going to China as a missionary).

Scene Two: 1:27:00 — 1:31:00

Eric Liddell meets with the Olympic committee, and he firmly stands by his decision not to run on a Sunday.

After he had left the meeting, the following conversation ensued.

Duke of Sutherland: A sticky moment, George.

Lord Birkenhead: Thank God for Lindsay. I thought the lad had us beaten.

Duke of Sutherland: He did have us beaten, and thank God he did.

Lord Birkenhead: I don’t quite follow you.

Duke of Sutherland: The “lad”, as you call him, is a true man of principles and a true athlete. His speed is a mere extension of his life, its force. We sought to sever his running from himself.

Lord Birkenhead: For his country’s sake, yes.

Duke of Sutherland: No sake is worth that, least of all a guilty national pride.

Scene Three: 1:53:12 — 1:53:25

Jackson Scholz, the American team competitor, hands him a note just before his race which reads

“It says in the good book he who honours me, him I will honour. Good luck”

Eric Liddell was nicknamed the Flying Scotsman and for good reason; he was the fastest athlete in his time. He had won every 100-metre race he had engaged in. He was thus chosen to be part of the British national team for the 1924 Paris Olympics purposely to run in the 100-metre race and hopefully win it. He however refused to run in the 100-metre race, a race he was tipped to win, upon learning the heats fell on a Sunday. He believed running on a Sunday violated his belief to keep the Sabbath holy.

He refused to run, even against the pressures of the Prince of Wales and the Duke of Sutherland. He would not run even if he were his country’s only hope of winning a gold medal. The media called him a traitor: his nation was very upset. Quite surprisingly, his friend Lindsay decided to sacrifice his place in the 400-metre race which was scheduled later in that week for Liddell. Liddell run, won, and set a new world record of 47.6s in a race he was least favoured to win! The record was only broken 12 years later in Berlin.

Although Liddell is well-known for his athletic feat, much of his impact will be seen later on in his life. About a year following his impressive Olympic showing, Liddell will let go of his national pride and glory and go on to China as a missionary. He lived in China for 20 years eventually dying of a brain tumour in a Japanese concentration camp in Weishien, (Weifang) during the second world war. (The Japanese who wanted to take over China during the second world war put all foreigners in the country into concentration camps with very harsh conditions). In the camp, Liddell became a track and rugby team coach. He was also a Sunday School teacher.

Stories of his life and the impact he made in the lives of the prisoners he was with in Weishien have spurred many on in their decision to run till the end.

Stephen Metcalf, who was then a child during Liddell’s time at the concentration camp shares how Liddell’s life challenged him to pursue forgiveness, love and service. He eventually returned to Japan as a missionary. He says,

“Weishien Camp had many great teachers. None of them meant more to me than Eric Liddell who was a famous Olympic athlete. He gave up all to come to China to teach the youth of China”.

“Eric gave me two things”.

“His worn-out running shoes. My own shoes had worn out and it was mid-winter. Three weeks later he died of a massive brain tumour”.

“The best thing he gave me was his “Baton of Forgiveness.” He taught me to love my enemies, the Japanese, and to pray for them…”

Margaret Holder says

“In the camp, the children played basketball, rounders, and hockey, and Eric Liddell was their referee. Not surprisingly, he refused to referee on Sundays. But in his absence, the children fought. Liddell struggled over this. He believed he shouldn’t stop the children from playing because they needed the diversion. Finally, Liddell decided to referee on Sundays.”

This made a deep impression on Margaret — she saw that the athlete famous for sacrificing success for principle was not a legalist. When it came to his own glory, Liddell would surrender it all rather than run on Sunday. But when it came to the good of children in a prison camp, he would referee on Sunday.

Mary Taylor Previte, imprisoned at Weishein as a child, described Eric as “Jesus in running shoes”.

Dr David Michell writes,

“Not only did Eric Liddell organise sports and recreation, through his time in internment camp he helped many people through teaching and tutoring. He gave special care to the older people, the weak, and the ill, to whom the conditions in camp were very trying. He was always involved in the Christian meetings which were a part of camp life. Despite the squalor of the open cesspools, rats, flies and disease in the crowded camp, life took on a very normal routine, though without the faithful and cheerful support of Eric Liddell, many people would never have been able to manage.

None of us will ever forget this man who was totally committed to putting God first, a man whose humble life combined muscular Christianity with radiant godliness.”

Randy Alcorn writes after meeting one of the survivors of the prison camp,

“What was his secret? He unreservedly committed his life to Jesus Christ as his Saviour and Lord. That friendship meant everything to him. By the flickering light of a peanut-oil lamp early each morning he and a roommate in the men’s cramped dormitory studied the Bible and talked with God for an hour every day”

Liddell’s life was an endless race — he ran for God’s glory on the track and lived it in real life. He knew God made him fast — for a purpose — and whenever he ran, he felt His pleasure. His notable races may be seen by the world as sprints, but his life showed the consistency, convictions, and momentum needed to finish life’s race till the end.

We too have been called to excellence, to a life beyond ourselves — to selflessly live to glorify God with our lives in whichever task he has called us to do, be it sports, academics, ministry, or the corporate world. With the gifts God has given us, we need:

  • Convictions— to stand for what we believe in regardless of the cost.
  • Consistency— to repeatedly do what we know we have to do, no matter how small the effort we put in may look like.
  • Communion— first, daily with God, for strength to do what he wants us to do, and then with others of similar mind to spur us on when we seem alone.

He that honours Him, He Himself will honour.

I pray we would draw inspiration from the rich life of Eric Liddell life, to run faithfully till the end. We may not be celebrated in this world, and that is okay. We seek a higher honour, God Himself. As we honour Him, he will honour us


Finally, from where does the power come to see the race to its end?

“From within” (1:53:42 – 1:54:00)

Further Reading

1. Eric Liddell – Missionary and Sprinter for the Lord.

2. Stephen A. Metcalf – Eric Liddell Centre.

This article was first published in the eleventh issue of GNOMIC Magazine

Dr. Priscilla Kyei-Baffour
Dr. Priscilla Kyei-Baffour

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