Eric Liddell – The Olympian who ran for God

Eric Liddell – The Olympian who ran for God

I think one of the most beautiful and the most inspirational title soundtrack that I have ever heard was from the Oscar-winning 1981 movie “Chariots of Fire“. The music was composed by Greek composer Vangelis. I think I first heard the soundtrack somewhere in the late 1980’s as the background music for a small promotional clip aired on Doordarshan (Indian public service broadcaster). At that time I wasn’t aware of the details of the song and the true story that inspired the movie “Chariots of Fire”.

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The movie portrays the true story of two athletes competing in the 1924 Paris Olympics. One was Eric Liddel, a committed Scottish Christian and the other, Harold Abrahams, an English Jew. I want to share Eric’s story as it has greatly inspired and impacted my walk with God.

Eric parents were Scottish missionaries working in China. Eric was born in China and later his parents sent him to England and got him enrolled in a boarding school there. It was here that Liddell emerged as an outstanding sportsman. While studying at the Oxford College, he was called the fastest Scottish runner and was nicknamed as the “Flying Scotsman”. Later he moved to Scotland, where he graduated with a science degree from the University of Edinburgh.


Eric Liddel refused to run the 100 meter race in the 1924 Olympics, because it was scheduled on Sunday. It was his best event and he had practiced hard for it and had very good chances of winning it. But for Eric, Sunday was a Sabbath day, a Holy day separated unto the Lord. And he wouldn’t give that day to the famed sporting event. He wouldn’t sacrifice it for his country’s sake. Even on facing enormous pressure from some leaders and sporting authorities, he wouldn’t compromise the principles of christian faith that he believed in. He held onto his convictions. On that Sunday, of his 100 meter race, Eric preached at a church service. The 200 meter and 400 meter races were set for other days but there were little expectations of Eric winning those races.

Eric won the bronze in the 200 meter race. On the day of the 400 meter race, as Eric was standing at the starting block in the race track, one of the American runners, Jackson Scholz, gave him a piece of paper with a scripture verse from 1 Samuel 2:30 from the Bible which says, “Those who honour Me I will honour.” Eric ran with that piece of paper in his hand and not only won the race but broke the existing world record with a time of 47.6 seconds. Eric was the first of his country to win Gold during the 1924 Paris Olympics. His feat caused sensational news headlines. According to the public voting for the Scottish Sports Hall of Fame in 2002, Eric Liddell was the most popular athlete Scotland has ever produced.

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( Following source is from wikipedia )

At the peak of his athletic career, Eric returned to China to work as a missionary. Later he was asked if he ever regretted his decision to leave behind all the fame, the glory of athletics and a comfortable life in Scotland. Liddell responded, “It’s natural for a chap to think over all that sometimes, but I’m glad I’m at the work I’m engaged in now. A fellow’s life counts for far more at this than the other“.

Apart from serving as a missionary evangelist, Eric also worked as a teacher in China. He taught chemistry and also trained students in athletic sports. In 1934, Eric married Florence Mackenzie, a canadian missionary. In 1940, the Japanese invaded China, and situation was turning very dangerous. Eric sent his wife Florence and his two kids to Canada but remained back and continued his missionary work. Eric helped his brother, a doctor, at a rural mission station which served the poor. The station was severely short of help and the missionaries there were exhausted. A constant stream of locals came at all hours for medical treatment. Eric arrived at the station in time to relieve his brother, who was ill and needing to go on furlough. Eric suffered many hardships himself at the mission.

The Japanese took over the mission station later and Eric returned to Tianjin. In 1943, he was imprisoned by the Japanese in an internment camp. Eric became a leader and organiser at the camp, but food, medicine and other supplies were scarce. There were many cliques in the camp and when some rich businessmen managed to smuggle in some eggs, Eric shamed them into sharing them. While fellow missionaries formed cliques, moralised and acted selfishly, Eric busied himself by helping the elderly, teaching at the camp school Bible classes, arranging games and by teaching science to the children, who referred to him as Uncle Eric. In a prisoner exchange bargain, his freedom was arranged by Winston Churchill, but he gave it up and let a pregnant woman leave instead.

In his last letter to his wife, written on the day he died, Eric wrote of suffering a nervous breakdown due to overwork, but in actuality he was suffering from an inoperable brain tumour; overwork and malnourishment may have hastened his death. He died on 21 February 1945, five months before liberation. He was greatly mourned not only at the Weihsien Internment Camp but also in Scotland. Langdon Gilkey, a fellow teacher and theologian was later to write, “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, Eric’s last words were, “It’s complete surrender”, in reference to how he had given his life to his God.

( End of wikipedia source )

Eric’s Memorable Quotes

“I believe that God made me for a purpose. But He also made me fast, and when I run, I feel His pleasure.”

“And where does the power come from, to see the race to its end? From within. Jesus said, “Behold, the Kingdom of God is within you. If with all your hearts, you truly seek me, you shall ever surely find me.” If you commit yourself to the love of Christ, then that is how you run a straight race.”

Eric Liddell was not only an outstanding athlete but truly a man of God. He stood by the principles of his faith. For Eric, honoring God was far more important than gaining fame, glory or pleasing people. He set his face like a flint and never gave in to any pressure of compromise. He gave all of himself to God. He put his hands to the plough and never looked back. His last words reminds me of our dear Apostle Paul’s words – I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race. I have kept the faith.

By Sachin George