I recently watched again the Oscar winning film ‘Chariots of Fire’. It is a terrific film. Once again I was moved by how the film portrays the faith of Olympian Eric Liddell (played to perfection by the late Ian Charleson). But there is more to the story than most people know.
For those not acquainted with the story or the film, a brief summary. Eric Liddell was born in China to a Scottish protestant missionary family. He was quite an athlete. An accomplished Rugby player, he attended the University of Edinburgh where he also took up and eventually dedicated himself to running. So accomplished was he as an athlete, Liddell was asked to represent the U.K. in the 1924 Paris Olympics in the 100 meter dash.
In the film, Liddell debates with his sister about whether his focus should be on running or on their missionary work. Liddell responds by saying “I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run I feel His pleasure.”
Liddell then showed the world he was more than a remarkable athlete; he was a remarkable Christian as well. A few months before the Olympics (not a few days as in the film), Liddell found out that one of the heats for the 100m would be on Sunday, the Lord’s day. He refused to run. So, with only months to go before the Olympics, Liddell began training for the 400m and the 200m instead.
As remarkable an athlete the Liddell was, given the circumstances, Liddell was not expected to really make a show of it. As Liddell went to the starting blocks, an American masseur handed a note to Liddell with a quotation from 1 Samuel 2:30, “Those who honor me I will honor.” God did indeed honor the Flying Scotsman, He honored him with a world record in the 400m and first place in the Olympics. God made him fast and the whole world felt His pleasure that day.
If the story ended there as it does in the movie, it would certainly rank in the annals of public Christian witness. The story does not end there.
After the Olympics, Liddell got his degree and returned to China to do missionary work. This he did for years even until the outbreak of World War II. As the Japanese took over China, Liddell found himself in an internment camp. He eventually ended up ill and malnourished. Five months before the liberation of the camp, Liddell passed away from a brain tumor. His was a remarkable life dedicated to Christ, but there is one more piece to the Liddell story.
Sometime before his death, the British government made a deal with the Japanese for a prisoner exchange. Chinese authorities revealed in 2008 that Liddell was given the chance to leave the camp. Instead, Eric Liddell gave his place on the exchange list to a pregnant woman in the camp. The pregnant woman left the camp; Liddell remained behind and eventually died.
According to another missionary interned with Liddell at the camp, his final words were “It is complete surrender.” Indeed it was.
As a Catholic, I look at the remarkable devotion to Christ of protestant Eric Liddell and marvel. As 1 Samuel 2:30 says, “Those who honor me I will honor.” There is no doubt that during his remarkable life Eric Liddell honored God and I trust the God is returning the favor.