Eric Liddell, a boy of Scottish descent, was born in 1902 in north China in the city of Tientsin. Eric was raised, during a dangerous time in China, when foreigners and missionaries were being sought out and killed throughout the country. James and Mary Liddell, Eric’s parents were sent to China by the London Missionary Society. Eric also had an older brother named Rob and a sister Jenny.
Eric’s father loved to read the Scottish newspaper aloud to his family when it was mailed to him in China. In one edition, James read to the whole family the exciting news about Wyndaham Halswelle. Halswelle, a great runner in Scotland, was the first Scot to ever win a medal at the Olympic Games. At that time, he had just won the silver for Great Britain in the 400m race. Seeing Eric’s expression and excitement his father quickly responded by communicating that winning was not everything and that what mattered most was how you ran the race of life. Quoting the Apostle Paul he said “Run in such a way to get the prize….”
In 1907 at the age of five Eric and his brother Rob entered an elementary boarding school called the Sons of Missionaries, later to be named Eltham College in London. It was at this school during his high school years that Eric discovered his God given athletic ability in rugby, cricket, and track. Eltham College voted and named Eric as the best overall athlete in 1918. At a track event the following year Eric set a school record for the 100 yard dash of 10.2 seconds that would not be broken for eighty years. Eric was also known to be very friendly and outgoing to his classmates, especially to those not as gifted. Although not required by his school, Eric began to attend Bible Studies and visited the sick at a nearby medical mission.
After completing high school, Eric enrolled in Edinburgh University to study science for the specific purpose of teaching in the Anglo-Chinese College back in China. The university rugby team chose Eric to represent Scotland in multiple international meets and just a few months after Eric decided to join the track team, he began winning races. In 1921 at the Scottish Amateur Athletics Association Championship, Eric won and set championship records in both the 100 yard and 220 yard races. When Eric returned to campus, they immediately assigned him to an athletic trainer.
When the athletic trainer approached Eric about coaching him, Eric was not sure that he wanted a trainer or that he even needed to pursue running. He had entered college to pursue his plan to join his father and teach in China. Eric was at a crossroad of faith and decided to talk to his mother who happened to be in London at the time. Eric asked, “Mother, does God really want me to run?” “You know my plans. You know that I have always wanted to work with father in China. How will running…and now all of this training help me get there?” She replied, “God has given you a tremendous gift, Eric, of that I am sure…You won’t go to China for a few years…perhaps this is God’s plan….to run now, and to give God all the glory for your gift.”
Eric decided that he would pursue running and agreed to be coached by his new athletic trainer. In the movie “Chariots of Fire”, Eric has a heartfelt discussion with his sister Jenny, communicating the reason for his decision. Eric explains, “I was made for a purpose, and that was for China, but God has also made me fast. When I run I can feel His pleasure, and to run and win is to honor Him. To not run, would be to hold him in contempt.”
Eric’s brother Rob and a few other students began to travel to many cities in Scotland to talk about Jesus. After the group noticed that they needed a well known speaker to draw in a larger crowd they decided to ask Eric to speak at the next crusade.
At the university, Eric spent all of his time speaking about his faith, studying for his classes, and training for upcoming races. After winning every race he entered in Scotland and beating Harold Abrams of Cambridge University, England’s best hope for the upcoming Olympics, Eric was named the fastest man in Scotland. Eric was on his way to the 1924 Olympic Games in Paris.
When Eric’s trainer received the Olympics schedule in the mail, he was stunned. Eric was to enter the 100m race and compete to become the fastest man in the world, but the first qualifying races were set to be held on Sunday. The trainer knew that Eric had a strong conviction about not running on Sunday. Eric had never run on Sunday, because he believed that running on the Sabbath would bring honor to himself over remembering God’s day of rest. After much discussion and negative press throughout Great Britain about Eric unwillingness to run, it was decided that Eric would run in the 200m and 400m races of they Olympics. Both of these races were being held later in the week, but were not his strength.
Just before Eric would race in the 400m, a friend of the British team walked up to him. The friend said few words to Eric and handed him a small piece of paper, which Eric put in his pocket. Eric knew in just a few hours, he would run the most important race of his life. He reached and pulled out the piece paper which read “In the old book it says: He who honors me, I will honor.” (I Samuel 2:30) Eric ran the 400m race, won the gold medal, and set a new world record of 47.6 seconds. He not only won a race he did not usually compete in, but finished five meters ahead of his opponents.
Eric had surpassed the success of Wyndham Halswelle, and was now being called the next Rob Roy and William Wallace of Scotland. When Eric was asked about his new fame and the secret of his running success he answered, “The secret of my success over the 400m is that I run the first 200m as fast as I can, then for the second 200m, with God’s help, I run harder.”
After the Olympics and graduation from Edinburgh University, Eric returned to China, after being away from the culture for more than fifteen years. He received an appointment to the Anglo-Chinese College, where he taught science, religion and sports to boys in Tientsin. After living in China for less than 20 years, building the first sports arena in Tientsin, meeting his wife Florence, and having two children, Eric died in 1945 at the age of 43 in a Japanese prison camp in Weihsien, China about 100 miles north of Tietsin.
Eric’s legacy is not what God did through him in China, or that Eric won a gold medal. Eric’s legacy is that he made decisions in advance according to his God given convictions to run the race of life in order to get the prize. The prize was the abundant life he discovered by his courageous faith in believing God was in control and experiencing God’s pleasure through his obedience.
Sources: Movie: Chariots of Fire, 1981
Caughey, Ellen; Eric Liddell, Barbour Publishing: Uhrichsville, Ohio, 2000.