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Photograph of Eric Liddell in Xiaochang. Image courtesy of the Eric Liddell Centre

By Dr. Harold Sala

Then he said to them all: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.  For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it.” Luke 9:23-24

When a major production company in Britain decided to do a film about an athlete of the 1920’s, media experts predicted they would lose millions.  But it turned out the picture became an Academy Award winner, and Chariots of Fire roused something of hero worship that the experts did not know was still there.

As good as the picture is, it falls short of actually demonstrating how great a man Eric Liddell really was, not in the sense of being a great athlete, but above and beyond that, of being a man great in character and integrity.  Chariots of Fire focuses on the contests that took Liddell to the 1924 Olympics in Paris, where his convictions kept him from running the 100-meter race, his specialty, because it was held on a Sunday.  Instead, Liddell chose to run in the 400-meter race and was further handicapped because he drew an outside lane where there were no other runners to help him set his pace.  Liddell, of course, raced to victory and later returned to his native city of Edinburgh as a great hero.

The story of Eric Liddell’s life, however, had just begun at that point.  Turning his back on a life as an international hero and one of Scotland’s favorite sons, Liddell chose to follow in the steps of his father and became a missionary to China.  In 1925 Liddell went to China to begin missionary work at the Anglo-Chinese Christian College.  Although Liddell ran some, the Chinese could not quite understand the strange Anglo-Saxon who ran through the crowded streets, and since it was not culturally very acceptable to the Chinese, Liddell stopped running.  He did, however, accept an invitation to Japan in 1928–three years later–to run in a 400-meter, international event.  Running in his own unique style, Liddell outclassed his opponents and swept the field, to the delight of the Japanese crowd.

What the crowd did not know was that Liddell’s ship back to China was due to leave 15 minutes after the event.  Liddell mystified officials and spectators alike by continuing to run on under the grandstand and out of the stadium to a waiting taxi that rushed Liddell to the docks.  The ship had already cast off from the jetty.  In a final sprint, Liddell ran down the pier and leaped to the decks of the ship 15 feet away.

Ironically, Liddell spent his last days with the Japanese, but as their prisoner.  When the Japanese invasion of China seemed imminent, Liddell sent his family home but remained behind to work as a missionary.  He was soon arrested and placed in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp.  A man who knew Liddell, who was also in that concentration camp, wrote the following: “For Eric Liddell death came just a few months before liberation.  He was buried in the little cemetery in the part of the camp where others who had died during internment had been laid to rest.  I remember being part of the honor guard made up of children from the Chefoo and Weihsein Schools.  None of us will ever forget this man who was totally committed to putting God first, a man whose humble life combined muscular Christianity with radiant godliness.

What was his secret?  He unreservedly committed his life to Jesus Christ as his Savior and Lord.  That friendship meant everything to him.  By the flickering light of a peanut-oil lamp early each morning, he studied the Bible and talked with God for an hour every day.  As a Christian Eric Liddell’s desire was to know God more deeply; and as a missionary, to make Him known more fully.  That is the real story.

Resource reading: Luke 9:18-27

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