Chariots of Fire is the powerful 1981 movie that follows the life of two British track athletes and their competition at the 1924 Olympics. It is probably best known for Eric Liddell, a devout Scottish Christian who refused to run in his best event, the 100yard run, because the heats were being held on a Sunday. In reality, the schedule for the Olympics was published well in advance so, only four months before the Olympics, Liddell began training for the 440yard (400m). His PB was 49.6 seconds which was quite average by international standards. Yet at the Olympics he won the 400m in a world record time of 46.7 seconds.
If you read the biography of Eric Liddell you will find a remarkable story of a man with principles. He was actually born in China, the son of Scottish missionaries. At the age of 6, he and his brother Robert, aged 8, were sent to England to be enrolled in a boarding school for the sons of missionaries. As he grew up, his parents and sisters only came back from China on furlough two or three times where they lived together in Edinburgh for short periods.
Headmasters described Liddell as a quiet man of principles. Fellow athletes described him as a man who consistently demonstrated Christ-like actions. Here is a story recounted by a fan who watched Liddell at a track meet:
“I remember an incident concerning him. When I lived in Edinburgh I went to Craiglockhart to see him running in the 100 yards sprint at the University Sports, which, incidentally, he won, beating his own record at the time. Prior to his event a coloured student was wandering about, awaiting his event. Not a single person was speaking to him. He seemed so much alone, my heart went out to him, so much so that I felt like going to talk to him myself. To my great joy, Eric went up to him, put his arm in his, and engaged him in a friendly conversation until his event was due. I thought it such a beautiful Christian action, and it has lived in my memory ever since. How like the man, wasn’t it?”
Liddell left competitive sports to return to China to serve as a missionary like his parents. He competed sporadically in some running events in China but his focus was teaching and evangelizing in China. He married a Canadian missionary woman and had three daughters, the last of which he would never see born. In 1941, life in China had become incredibly dangerous because of Japanese aggressiveness and the British government advised Brits to leave. Liddell’s pregnant wife and his other two daughters left. Liddell never saw them again as he was sent to an Internment Camp where he died in 1945 at the age of 43.
On an earlier visit back to Scotland, he had been asked if he ever regretted his decision to leave behind the fame and glory of athletics. 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.”
Athletics offered a wonderful platform for Liddell to be a tremendous light for Jesus, but he never confused it with the ultimate purpose God had for him on this earth. What is yours?