Of all the decisions we’ve ever had to make, it’s easy to identify those that have changed our lives and tested our character. For Eric Liddell, one such decision was to give up an Olympic race for his faith.
Eric Liddell was born in China in 1902 to a family of Scottish missionaries. He was just six years old when the family returned to Britain to leave him and his brother Robert, two years older, at a boarding school in London. His parents and sister left shortly afterwards to continue their missionary work in China.
While at school, Eric showed exceptional sporting talent, becoming captain of the cricket and rugby teams as a teenager. Despite these achievements in competitive sport, Eric was a young man “entirely without vanity,” as the headmaster of the school he attended later described him.
As a student at Edinburgh University, Eric combined the study of formal science with rugby and track and field. As a result of his performances, he was selected for the British team for the 1924 Olympic Games in Paris. A few months before the Games, the race schedules were announced. The qualifying heats for the 100 metres, his favourite event and the one in which he had the best chance of success, were scheduled for a Sunday.
Eric had never run on a Sunday because of his religious beliefs. Convinced that running on Sunday didn’t bring honour to God, Eric gave up the race that could bring him Olympic gold. His decision stunned many, became a hot topic of discussion in the British Parliament, and made waves around the world.
Although many were disappointed and gave him no chance of winning, Eric decided to concentrate his efforts on the 200 and 400 metres, where his best times were modest by international standards.
Before the 400m final, a member of the US team approached Liddell and handed him a piece of paper. It was part of verse 30 of 1 Samuel 2: “Those who honor me I will honor.” With that encouragement in mind, he began the race, an amazing race that won him the Olympic gold medal and a world record that stood for 12 years. “I couldn’t believe a man could set such a pace and finish,” silver medallist Horatio Finch told journalists at the end of the race.
A year after that victory, and after graduating from college, Eric returned to China to continue his parents’ missionary work. He worked with the needy, taught in Chinese schools, organised sports competitions, and worked in a hospital. When asked by journalists if he was sorry to leave his sporting glory behind, he replied that he was happy and acknowledged that his life was more important in serving God.
In 1941, because of the international tensions caused by the Second World War, Eric sent his pregnant wife and two daughters to Canada. Japan was gradually occupying parts of China, and by 1943, foreigners were being sent to internment camps. Eric ended up in one of these camps.
When Winston Churchill himself managed to arrange an exchange for his release, Eric refused to leave, insisting that a pregnant woman be sent in his place. In the camp he had become everyone’s friend and a role model for the young. No one had ever heard him say a bad word about anyone. “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,” said a good friend of his.
Just five months before the end of the war, Eric was on his deathbed from a brain tumour. Despite the pain and weakness caused by starvation, his last words were full of calm and hope: “It’s complete surrender”…words that best defined his whole life.