Eric Liddell: “When I run, I feel God’s pleasure”
- Credit: Archant
“When in England always carry an umbrella, because if it’s not raining yet, it soon will be.” This is a piece of valuable wise advice I haven’t always adhered to.
One such occasion was when, as a teenager, on a March Monday evening forty years ago, I was standing in the middle of a large crowd outside the Odeon cinema in Leicester Square, when the heavens opened.
We were all waiting for the stars & guests of that year’s Royal Command Film Performance to make their appearance. Fortunately, although I lacked a brolly, the person standing next to me had come prepared.
She was an Australian tourist, keen to take photographs of the rich and famous to show off to her friends when she got back home. And so, as she clearly couldn’t operate her camera and stay dry at the same time, I “gallantly” offered to hold her umbrella, giving her the freedom to capture the moment for posterity, whilst I could avoid a soaking. “Take all the time you want” I said to my new friend, “I’ve got all night!”
The film being premiered that evening was Chariots of Fire, destined to become a deserved Oscar winner. At the heart of that film, was the true-life story of the Scottish Olympic athlete, Eric Liddell.
The focus and culmination of the drama of Chariots of Fire is the Paris Olympics of 1924 where Eric Liddell was one of the favourites for gold in the 100 metres.
However, when Liddell learns that the heats for his race were to take place on a Sunday, he declines to race, due to his Christian conviction about the Sabbath being “the Lord’s day”.
Although many struggled to comprehend Liddell’s choice, Eric would not change his decision. Instead, he was given the opportunity to compete in the 400 metres, a distance most considered he was ill-suited for.
Liddell’s arms flailed all over the place as he ran, with his head tilted backwards. One reporter asked, in a mocking tone, “Mr Liddell, what is your race strategy?” Eric, with his tongue slightly in his cheek, replied, “I intend to run the first 200 metres as fast as I can; then, with God’s help, I’ll run the last 200 metres faster.”
He was true to his word, securing a gold medal with a time of 47.6 seconds, breaking both the Olympic and World Records. At the conclusion of Chariots of Fire, the rest of Eric Liddell’s life is summed up in a few phrases – “Eric Liddell, missionary, died in occupied China at the end of World War II. All of Scotland mourned.”
Within a year of his Olympic success, Eric followed in his father’s footsteps, returning to China for twenty years of missionary service.
All the stories you read of those who encountered him speak of how much Liddell loved Jesus, and expressed his Christian devotion through his practical love for others.
In 1943, with the Japanese occupation of China making life increasingly dangerous, Eric’s pregnant wife & two daughters left for safety in Canada. Eric stayed, and a short while after was among the many “enemy nationals” rounded up by the Japanese, and interred in a squalid prison camp in Weihsien, where there were no working bathrooms or running water.
Winston Churchill arranged for Liddell’s release, but he turned the offer down, instead allowing a pregnant woman to take his place. He would never be reunited with his family, dying in Weihsien, from an inoperable brain tumour, aged 43.
Margaret Holder, who as a child was in the Weihsien prison camp, separated from her missionary parents, described Liddell as “a godly man who we called Uncle Eric.” Another who was also a child prisoner, Mary Taylor Previte, described him as “Jesus in running shoes.”
The words of Scripture found in Philippians 1:21, where the apostle Paul writes, “For living to me means simply “Christ”, and if I die I should merely gain more of him” are an apt summary of Eric Liddell’s life of service and sacrifice.
So to are his last recorded words, before he slipped into a coma and died on 21st February 1945: “It’s full surrender”.