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Running the Race

Over the past few weeks I’ve posted a couple of short biographies I wrote this summer. I want to post just one more—this one about the olympic runner and missionary Eric Liddell.

What may be most interesting about Eric Liddell is that he is remembered for something he didn’t do far more than than something he did. And he did some great things! He was one of the best rugby players in the world, one of the fastest men in the world, a two-time Olympic medalist. He was a profoundly godly guy, a pastor, a missionary. And yet he is known for what he did not do.

His story begins in China in 1902 and ends in China in 1945, so he lived from the turn of the century, right near the end of the Victorian era, to almost the end of World War 2. He was born in January of that year in Tianjin, the second son of James and Mary Liddell. His father was a missionary with the London Missionary Society, that great organization that sent so many missionaries around the world (perhaps the best known of them being David Livingstone who is best remembered for what someone else said to him!). His parents were Scottish Presbyterians and were noted for their zeal for evangelism, something that was not very popular in the part of Scotland they had come from.

China at the time was a very unstable place. This was just two years after the Boxer Rebellion, when Chinese nationalists took up arms against foreigners. They were particularly angry at Christians, killing hundreds of them including nearly 200 missionaries. Hudson Taylor’s China Inland Missions was hit hardest with 58 of their missionaries being put to death.

By 1902 the situation had stabilized and the Rebellion had been put down, but China remained a dangerous place to be. Shortly after Eric was born the family moved to Siaochang, a particularly dangerous place and an area that had seen a great deal of suffering during the Rebellion. James was to help rebuild London Missionary buildings and properties that had been destroyed. He also traveled through the area, preaching in public and encouraging the pastors of local churches in the area. That work continued until 1907 when the Liddell family returned to Scotland for a furlough.

In those days a missionary tended to work for six or seven years and would then get a year off. James and Mary had been in China for nearly eight years and were overdue for their furlough. So they packed up a few of their belongings and made the long journey back to Scotland. This was the first time the children had been anywhere but China.

Missionaries had a tough job back then and the work came with one strange tradition. When the parents went overseas, they usually left their children behind, especially if those children were boys. Mom and dad would go overseas for seven years and would not see their children for that entire time. The Liddells were no different, so after that one-year furlough was up Eric and his older brother Rob were taken to the School for the Sons of Missionaries (the name was soon changed to Eltham College). Their father registered them and then headed back to China. Mary wanted to wait a bit longer to make sure the boys adjusted well, so she remained behind for several months before she, too, went to China. Eric wasn’t quite seven years old when he was left behind, knowing that he would not see his parents for 6 years. Rob was 8.

So think about what it meant to raise children as a missionary. You would have your children with you for 5 or 6 years when they were very young. Then you wouldn’t see them for another 7 years. Then you’d see them for a year. Then you’d be gone for another 7. By the time you got back, they’d practically be all grown up. These missionary parents might spend only 2 or 3 years with their children before the children grew into adults and moved on with life. Eric and Rob would grow up at this school instead of with their family.

Eric was a good student but an even better athlete. Actually, in many cases the track and field days at the school read like an all-Liddell event. When Eric didn’t win first, his brother did. And the other one almost always won second place. That must have been kind of depressing for the other boys. In one track meet they placed first and second in cross country, long jump, high jump, hundred yard dash, hurdle race and quarter mile.

It was some time in these years that Eric became a Christian. In 1917 he and his brother both became members of a church and presumably made some kind of public profession of faith. He didn’t talk about how he came to know the Lord, at least not that I could find. But it seems that he was raised in a Christian home and, at some point in his teen years, came to that place where he decided that the faith of his parents would be his faith as well.

When the boys were finished at this school, they both headed to the University of Edinburgh, Rob to study medicine and Eric to study science (because Rob was a year older he went a year earlier). Rob had decided that he wanted to follow his father to the mission field and Eric was still deciding what he would do. He began university in 1921.

It was here that a student walked up to Eric and said, “I understand you did some running at Eltham College.” “A little” Eric replied. The guy suggested Eric try out for the track team. Eric really wasn’t that interested but eventually said he would show up if the other guy gave him a little training. Eric really knew very little—he didn’t even know about proper warms ups and cool downs. He would just start running without warming up and would stop dead after finishing a race. In his very first meet, though, he won the 100-year race and came in second in the 220. People started to notice him.

Within two years he was a well-known university athlete, one who excelled in both rugby and running. In fact, he was playing for the Scottish national rugby team in international tournaments, trying to beat England, France and other countries. And it was this year that he made what he said was the hardest decision of his life. One day a man named D.P. Thomson came to Liddell’s home to ask if he would consider speaking at an evangelistic meeting the next Friday. Eric was a very quiet guy and one who was afraid of public speaking. He paused for a moment but realized that he could not say no. And so, despite his fears, he went out and did it. And God blessed that work. Suddenly he wasn’t just an athlete but a Christian athlete. And the better he became as an athlete, the more speaking he was asked to do. He came to see that his success in sports had opened to him a platform to talk about his faith.

At one point a journalist came and asked him about the key to his success as an athlete. Liddell’s reply was, “It’s the 3 7’s!” The guy had no idea what this meant so Eric replied—it’s the seventh verse of the seventh chapter of the seventh book of the New Testament: “Each has his own gift from God, one of one kind and one of another.” He regarded his ability to run as a special gift from God and one he had to use for God’s glory. If you watch the film Chariots of Fire you’ll hear him say “I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run I feel His pleasure.” These are probably the most famous words attributed to Liddell. I tried to find out if he really said them or if they were just words created for the movie. As far as I can see, they are only movie words, but even if they don’t really come from him, they are consistent with what he believed and what he lived. God made him fast and by using his gift, he felt God’s pleasure. If God made him fast, he felt that he had better use that gift for God’s glory.

If we look for lessons in the life of Eric Liddell, I think this is the first one we’ll find. He was a remarkably normal guy—soft-spoken, shy, quiet. He wasn’t at all brilliant and didn’t have an amazing theological mind. But through all that normalcy he was able to do what he loved to do, he was able to use his gifts, to bring glory to God and to enjoy the pleasure of God. He was not a great speaker, certainly no Wesley or Whitefield, but people loved him for his sincerity. No one ever doubted that he meant what he said. He was utterly normal and utterly sincere.

1924 was to be an Olympic year with the events being held in Paris. Already in the years leading up to the Olympics there was talk of Eric being appointed to the British team. And sure enough he was selected to run the 100 and 200. Not only that, he was favored to win or at least to medal in them.

Several months before the Olympics began, though, he found out that the 100 yard heats were to be run on Sunday. And here is where he made the decision that would forever mark him. Liddell was a strict Sabbatarian, one who believed that the Lord’s Day was to be kept holy. He believed it was sinful to play sports on that day or to do work on that day. For him, running was both play and work and he would not violate his conscience. This was not a difficult decision—it wasn’t one he labored over. When he found out that he would have to run on Sunday he informed the Olympic committee that he would not and could not do it. Period. Not surprisingly he took a little bit of heat for this, but he never wavered. He simply wouldn’t run. And this decision is what he is known for even today; he is known as the athlete who didn’t run a race.

Eventually it was decided that instead of running the 100 and 200, he could run the 200 and 400. Now the 400 was an event he had run in the past, but it was not one he had trained for. He would have only a few months to prepare himself for an event the others had been training for for years.

Those months passed quickly and the Olympics began.

First up was the 200. When all was said and done, Liddell took the bronze in this event, coming in behind two American runners. If you’ve watched Chariots of Fire you’ll remember Abrahams. He was the British runner who was favored to win this event, but he came in flat last in the final run. The British papers almost seemed to miss Liddell’s bronze, instead lamenting Abraham’s failure. Of course Abraham would come back to win the 100.

After picking up his bronze, Eric had to focus on the 400. Many people consider the 400 the most difficult running event. The 100 is about pure speed with little endurance. The 200 is much the same, though endurance factors in a little bit. The 400, though, is an effort to maintain top speed not for 10 seconds but for 45 or 50. It becomes a question of who can decelerate the least in the final stretch of the race when muscles are burning and oxygen is depleted. Liddell got through the heats and found himself in the finals on the outside lane. As was his habit, he walked to each of the other runners to shake their hands and wish them well.

And, well, you know how the story ends. Liddell took off like a jack-rabbit, setting a pace everyone knew he couldn’t sustain. Except that he did. He never gave up that lead and came across the finish line in first place. He now had a gold to go along with his bronze. And he was now a true Scottish hero. He was celebrated everywhere he went, something that made him intensely uncomfortable. But he also realized that it opened doors and he took advantage, speaking about the gospel as often as he could.

Two days after returning home from the Olympics he graduated, and though he ran for another year, he knew that his career as a runner was coming to an end. He wanted to head back to China to do the Lord’s work there. He spent a year pursuing a theological degree. In 1925, his course completed, his running days done, he headed for China.

To be continued…

Eric Liddell