Remembering Eric Liddell

This year is the centenary of Eric Liddell’s success at the 1924 Paris Olympic Games. Eric’s story was told in the Oscar-winning film “Chariots of Fire.” He was born in Tientsin in northern China where his parents were missionaries with the London Missionary Society. In 1923 Eric gave up rugby to concentrate on athletics in preparation for the 1924 Olympics. In 1923 he won the 100-yards and 220-yards races at the AAA championships setting a new British record of 9.7 seconds for the 100-yards which stood for 23 years. He was the favourite for the 100-yards at the Olympics.

As a Christian Eric had always kept Sunday as a special day for rest and worship in obedience to the 4th commandment in God’s Ten Commandments. The 4th commandment says, “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy to the Lord your God.” So, Eric never competed on Sundays. When the Olympic schedule was published Eric saw the 100-yards heats would take place on a Sunday. He quietly withdrew from that event and from the 4×100 and 4×440 yards Great Britain relay teams because the finals were on a Sunday.

In the months before the Olympics, Eric concentrated on the 440-yards, because the final was on a weekday. Eric’s times in the 440-yards had not been so good, but in the Olympic heats he broke the world record three times in two days. In a thrilling final, he sprinted into an early lead and won the gold medal, setting a European record that stood for 12 years.

Eric knew God had given him the talent to run so well and wanted to honour God in all he did. An Olympic gold medal was not the most important prize in his life. He said, “It has been a wonderful experience to compete in the Olympic Games and to bring home a gold medal, but since I have been a young lad, I have had my eyes on a different prize. You see, each one of us is in a greater race than any I have run in Paris, and this race ends when God gives out the medals.”

After running his final races in Britain in 1925, Eric went to Tientsin in China to work as a missionary teacher. He taught the children of wealthy Chinese parents and trained boys in sports. However, China became more dangerous in the late 1930s as Japanese influence and aggression grew. Eric was sent to a poor rural base at Siaochang, joining his brother Rob, a doctor. In 1941 the situation had deteriorated so much that the British government advised British nationals to leave. Eric’s wife Florence was pregnant with their third child. She and the children left for Canada, but Eric stayed on helping to provide food and medical treatment.

In 1943 Eric was detained in a civilian internment camp where he became a leader, helping the elderly, teaching children, and organising games. While he was in the camp Eric Liddell developed an inoperable brain tumour and died in the camp in February 1945 at the age of 43. He entered into the presence of his Saviour Jesus, whom he loved and who had loved him and died for him.

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