He had wings on his feet
High ethics and religious principles form the basis
for success and happiness in every area of life.
– JOHN TEMPLETON
Of all the stories you uncover in the annals of Olympic lore, the memorable tale of Eric Liddell is unquestionably a classic. With today being the first official day of the London Olympics, cast your mind back with me for a brief moment to the early 20th century, to Olympiad VIII, in 1924, in Paris, France.
Eric Liddell, a 26-year-old Scot is the British entry in the men’s 100 and 200 metres. It was here at the Summer Olympics that a French schoolmaster first coined the phrase that would become the motto of the Olympic movement, “Citius, Altius, Fortius,” – “Faster, Higher, Stronger.”
As runners went, Liddell was as fleet-footed as a young gazelle but for coaches and afficionados of track his running style was clumsy and highly unorthodox. The Scot would flail his arms in the air, pump his knees to his chest and throw his head back to look skyward. With his head tilted vertically in an unconventional posture, spectators wondered how on earth he ever maintained his sense of direction without even looking.
The 1924 Olympics went down as being about the hottest on record, at track level temperatures soared to 100 degrees Fahrenheit. As the scheduling for the preliminary events took place Liddell discovered that the qualifying heats for the men’s 100 metres would be held on a Sunday. That presented somewhat of a moral dilemma for the Scottish sprinter. He had trained arduously for the Games, but there was a principle of life that he held in high regard, the Sabbath, or Lord’s Day, was a sacred day, designed by the Almighty for worship and rest.
Liddell would not violate his own integrity nor the Biblical command he considered sacrosanct, to do so for him was unconscionable, so he determined on principle that he would disqualify himself from the 100-metre qualifying heats.
In the Academy Award-winning movie “Chariots Of Fire,” the head of the British contingent to France summons the young Scot into a meeting with himself and His Royal Highness, Prince Edward of Wales, the heir apparent to the British throne. Together they plead, should I say, demand, that Liddell run. In the film, the British monarch turns to Liddell and says, “Liddell, old chap, this is for your King and country!”
With the unbending resolve of a principled man, Liddell respectfully looks to the heir to the throne and says, “You know Sir, I love my King, and my country, but I love my Lord more,” and then adds, “but I will not run on a Sunday.”
Needless to say, many of those at home in Scotland called Liddell a traitor, to them he was the country’s only hope of winning a gold. Yet despite the volume of public pressure the tenacious, principled Scot was adamant – he would not run, he would not sacrifice principle for patriotism, no matter how badly he or the nation coveted an Olympic gold.
In the aftermath of Liddell’s principled stand, the British delegation decide to field him in qualifying heats for the men’s 400 metres, a distance that clearly was not the runner’s specialty, 100-metre sprinters rarely if ever run the 400.
In the film “Chariots Of Fire,” Liddell’s sister tells him that God has called him to be a missionary and he is fruitlessly wasting his life by running. Her brother’s response to the criticism of a sibling is one of the powerful moments in the movie.
“I believe God made me for a purpose,” he says to her, “but He also made me fast, and when I run I feel pleasure.”
On the day of the 100-metre final, Liddell, who happened to be a preacher’s son, is himself preaching at a church close to the Olympic track venue. The starter’s gun for the 100 metres goes off just as Liddell begins to preach from the 40th chapter of the Book of Isaiah.
“Do you not know?” it says, “Have you not heard? That the Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He will not grow weary, and His understanding no one can fathom. He gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak. Those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength, they will soar on wings like eagles, they will run and not grow weary.” (The Bible, Isaiah 40:28-31)
It is a poignant moment in the film, Liddell standing in a pulpit, when he could have been going for gold. The following day at the Colombes Stadium in Paris, Liddell lines up for the 400 metres. The world record in 1924 was 48.2 seconds. The starter’s pistol is fired and the sprinters burst out of the blocks. Liddell surprisingly goes to the front and halfway through the race throws his head into the air in his classic unconventional style. It’s almost as if, with head tilted skyward, he is looking into the face of God who is smiling down at him with intense pleasure. Arms flailing, head raised, legs pumping, the Scot runs as if possessed by some extraordinary power, soars like an eagle with wings on his feet and bursts through the finishing tape in the astonishing time of 47.6 seconds, shaving .6 of a second off the existing Olympic record.
Newspapers back in Scotland that had once called him a traitor, now lauded him as a national hero and dubbed him, “The Flying Scotsman.” All of Scotland was abuzz at Liddell’s incredible victory in the 400 metres.
When it all died down, the Scottish sprinter headed off to China. An Olympic gold had unquestionable value, but to the young man still in his 20’s, faith in Christ and serving Him as a missionary far surpassed any earthly achievement.
When the Japanese occupied China, Liddell was taken prisoner and spent the remainder of his days in an internment camp. It was there, on February 21, 1945, in his early 40s that the ‘principled’ Liddell succumbed to death.
At the news of his passing, newspapers reported that “All of Scotland mourned.”
Even to this day, a century later, the Scots still remember Eric Liddell, the man who put principles ahead of the prestige of winning a coveted gold, a Christian for whom earthly honours paled in significance with the highest honour of running the race and winning the greatest prize – Jesus Christ!
Rev. Eric Strachan is pastor of New Life Community Church in Petawawa.