top of page

Eric LIddell: Wings on HIs Feet, Fire in His Soul

Eric Liddell, 1902-1945

Critics claim that one of the most gripping motion pictures of all times was the 1981 Oscar-award-winning, Chariots of Fire. It made Olympic runner Eric Liddell, a household word overnight.

But it wasn’t the movie which gave people inspiration, as much as the unusual man behind the story. The motion picture didn’t tell what happened AFTER Liddell’s fame as an Olympic gold medalist. That story is even more inspirational.

Eric Liddell was born January 16, 1902, to Scottish missionary parents in China. He traveled to a British boarding school at age six and continued his education there for twelve years. While at school he excelled in sports like rugby, and short-distance races. The lad seemed to be blessed with wings on his feet.

Chosen to represent Great Britain in the 1924 Paris Olympics, Liddell made a decision which caused quite a stir—and which made him famous.

When “The Flying Scotsman” as he was called, found that the 100-meter race, which he had trained for, would be held on Sunday, he withdrew his name. Raised to respect and reverence the Christian Sabbath, he refused to dishonor the day, and instead, chose to worship and rest. He then elected to run the longer 440-meter race on another day.

Just before Liddell went to the starting block, an American handed him a scrap of paper with these words from I Samuel 2:30:” Them that honour me I will honour.” They proved prophetic.

Liddell left the starting block at full speed, instead of pacing himself like fellow runners. Spectators were certain he made a big mistake. Just when they thought the young athlete would burn out of energy, he kicked in even faster, with his famous chest out, head back, arm-flapping style—and finished first. He had earned the Olympic gold medal for the 440 race.

Some would choose fame and fortune after such a momentous victory. Not Eric. Turning his back on the world’s fleeting glory, he elected to continue his calling as a man of singular purpose. Eric sailed to China as a Christian missionary where he taught science and sports at a boys’ school.

Then came war. The Japanese invaded China, making it unsafe for Eric’s pregnant wife and two small daughters to stay. He sent them to Canada to live with his wife’s parents until the war was over.

Time came for those at the school to move to an internment camp. Eric led the procession, singing songs and keeping the students’ spirits buoyed. Once at the camp, he became a one-man work machine. Knowing that regular activities would create a more secure environment for the young people, he continued to teach classes and organize recreational activities and Bible studies. In addition, he worked in the kitchen, almost apologetic that he couldn’t do more.

Prime Minister Winston Churchill arranged Liddell’s release from the prison camp; however, in the spirit of Christian charity, Eric gave his release pass to a woman who was expecting a baby.

Liddell corresponded with his wife, assuring her that he was keeping busy. What he didn’t tell her was the horrendous headaches he was having.

This unusual hero died of a brain tumor on February 21, 1945, just six months before the camp were liberated.

A famous statement made by Liddell, prize athlete and missionary, seemed to characterize his life: “In the dust of defeat as well as the laurels of victory, there is glory to be found if one has done his best.”

Another writer who knew about victory, summed it up this way, “I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus."

Liddell ran the Olympic race well. He ran the race of life even better.

Your turn. Any thoughts on those who choose faith over fame? Join in the conversation below.


bottom of page