Olympic glory abounds in Rio as the 31st modern Olympiad is well underway. This time, the event is living up to its hype, especially for Americans, who are likely drawn to the pomp and ceremony as much as the athletic competition.
The medal 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.”
But in those few words was the real story of Eric Liddell. Yes, 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.”
Many Christians are proud to quote Liddell’s most famous lines from Chariots of Fire: “God made me fast. And when I run, I feel his pleasure.” God did make Eric Liddell fast, and he ran for God’s glory, but those words were not actually from Liddell. They were written by Colin Welland and put in the voice of Liddell, as played by actor Ian Charleson.
What Liddell did say, and more than once, was that God made him for China. This is what the viewers of the movie never learned. Liddell was born in Tientsin, China to missionary parents in 1902. James and Mary Liddell were in China under the commission of the London Missionary Society. As Duncan Hamilton, author of a very fine new biography of Liddell explains, as a young boy Eric Liddell simply considered himself to be Chinese.
Later, Eric and his brother would be sent to boarding school near London and would know their parents only through correspondence and brief visits. But China was always on Liddell’s heart. As a student at the University of Edinburgh, Liddell became very well known as both a runner and a preacher. He was especially powerful as a preacher to young men. Liddell spoke passionately but conversationally, explaining that the best preaching to young men took the form of a simple talk, in Duncan Hamilton’s words, “as if chatting over a picket fence.” But Liddell’s clear biblical and evangelical message came through, and powerfully.
He preached before, during, and after his Olympic glory. He returned to graduate from the University and Edinburgh shortly after the 1924 Paris games and made preparation to go to China as a missionary, also under the direction of the London Missionary Society.
He taught school, preached, and eventually found a wife, Florence. With her he had three daughters, though he was never to see the third. After decades of internal warfare and turmoil, China was thrown into the horrors of Japanese occupation during World War II.
Those horrors are still unknown to many Americans, but much of China was submitted to massive rape and murder by the occupying Imperial Japanese forces. Liddell eventually sent Florence, then pregnant with their third child, and their two daughters to Canada for safety. It was just in time.
Along with members of the China Inland Mission and many others, Christians and non-Christians alike, Eric Liddell was forced into a foretaste of hell itself in the Weihsien Internment Camp. He would die their shortly before the end of the war. In the concentration camp, Liddell became legendary and his witness for Christ astounded even many of his fellow Christians.
As Hamilton writes: “Liddell can sound too virtuous and too honorable to be true, as if those who knew him were either misrepresenting or consciously mythologizing. Not so. The evidence is too overwhelming to be dismissed as easily as that. Amid the myriad moral dilemmas in Weihsien, Liddell’s forbearance was remarkable.” He became the moral and spiritual leader of the horrifying reality with that camp.
Chariots of Fire was released when I was a seminary student. Like so many other young Christians, I saw the movie and was greatly moved by it. But, even then, I wondered if Liddell could really have been what so many others claimed of him.
Not long thereafter, a professor assigned me to read Shantung Compound by theologian Langdon Gilkey of the University of Chicago Divinity School. Gilkey was in many ways the opposite to Liddell. Gilkey was a theological liberal whose father, famously liberal, had been the first dean of the chapel at the University of Chicago. Langdon Gilkey had gone to China to teach English after graduating from Harvard. He found himself interred with Eric Liddell.
In Shantung Compound, Gilkey analyzed what happens when men and women are put under extraordinary pressure. He argued that the worst moral dilemmas in Weihsien came not from their Japanese captors, but from the prisoners themselves. His point was that, for many if not most of the captured, the experience brought out the worst in them, rather than the best. He changed the names of those inside the camp when he told their stories.
There were a few moral exceptions. Gilkey wrote of one exceptional individual, a missionary he named “Eric Ridley.” Gilkey wrote: “It is rare indeed when a person has the good fortune to meet a saint, but he came as close to it as anyone I have ever known.” Gilkey described how Liddell had largely single-handedly resolved the crisis of a breakout of teenage sexual activity in the camp. In the midst of a moral breakdown, with no societal structures to restrain behavior, few even seemed to want to help.
Gilkey made this observation: “There was a quality seemingly unique to the missionary group, namely, naturally and without pretense to respond to a need which everyone else recognized only to turn aside. Much of this went unnoticed, but our camp could scarcely have survived as well as it did without it. If there were any evidences of the grace of God observable on the surface of our camp existence, they were to be found here.”
Gilkey had renamed individuals as he wrote about them, but he described “Eric Ridley” as having won the 400 meter race at the Olympics for England before going to China as a missionary. Eric Ridley was Eric Liddell, and Langdon Gilkey was writing of a man he has observed so closely as a living saint. I realized that Langdon Gilkey had told the most important part of Eric Liddell’s story long before Chariots of Fire.
Gilkey closed his words about Erid Liddell with these: “Shortly before the camp ended, he was stricken with a brain tumor and died the same day. The entire camp, especially its youth, was stunned for days, so great was the vacuum that Eric’s death had left.”
Liddell indeed died of a brain tumor, suddenly and unexpectedly. The cause of his death only became clear after an autopsy. Eric Liddell died in the nation where he had been born. Indeed, he has sometimes been listed as China’s first Olympic medalist. He never saw his third daughter.
“God made me for China.” Eric Liddell lived his life in answer to that calling and commission. As Duncan Hamilton explains, Liddell “considered athletics as an addendum to his life rather than his sole reason for living it.”
Eric Liddell ran for God’s glory, but he was made for China. He desperately wanted the nation he loved to hear the Gospel of Jesus Christ and believe. David J. Michell, director for Canada Overseas Missionary Fellowship, would introduce Liddell’s collected devotional writings, The Disciplines of the Christian Life, by stating simply that “Eric Liddell’s desire was to know God more deeply, and as a missionary, to make him known more fully.”
As Olympic glory shines from Rio, Christians must remember that Olympic glory will eventually fade. There will be medalists for all to celebrate in Rio. But, will there be another Eric Liddell? At the very least, his story needs to be told again. The most important part of his story came long after his gold medal arrived by mail.
Duncan Hamilton’s new biography is For the Glory: Eric Liddell’s Journey from Olympic Champion to Modern Martyr (New York: Penguin Press, 2016).
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