This is the part of the story most people know: Eric Liddell, a conscientious Christian athlete, refused to run in the heats for the 100-metre sprint at the 1924 Paris Olympics because they were held on a Sunday. Instead, he switched to the 400 metres, an event he had hardly trained for, and won the gold medal for Britain. The story of his epic, record-breaking, 47.6 seconds was immortalised in the iconic 1981 movie Chariots of Fire.
What most people don’t know, however, is what happened next. In his biographical novel The Final Race, The Incredible World War II Story of the Olympian Who Inspired Chariots of Fire, Eric Eichinger tells the story of another race, run with such remarkable endurance and faithfulness that it makes Liddell’s gold medal race pale by comparison.
Eric Liddell was born in China, the son of Scottish missionaries. At the tender age of five, according to the tradition of the day, he was sent to boarding school in London. Eichinger does a great job of showing how the pangs of separation developed Liddell’s character. He knew how it felt to be surrounded by people, but still to feel alone, except for God. Remarkably, instead of making him bitter, the experience taught him to stand his ground.
By 1921, Liddell was studying science and playing rugby for the University of Edinburgh. But it was his unique running style and impressive speed that would eventually lead him to the 1924 Paris Olympics. Eichinger’s description of how refusing to compete on a Sunday turned Liddell from Britain’s favourite athlete into a traitor is gripping. Eichinger shares newspaper quotes that illustrate clearly the tremendous pressure Liddell was under.
But Liddell continued to shock. After winning the gold medal and cementing his reputation as an athlete, Liddell left the glory behind and, in 1925, returned to China to serve as a missionary. On the train platform, about to leave for China, and surrounded by his fans, Liddell shared what would became his life motto: “Christ for the world, for the world needs Christ!”
Liddell served in China from 1925 to 1943. It was there that he met his wife, 10 years his junior, Florence Mackenzie, the daughter of Canadian missionaries. But life in China became increasingly dangerous for foreign nationals when the Japanese invaded. By 1941, Liddell sent his pregnant wife and two daughters to Canada as the violence rapidly escalated. His intent was to stay a couple more years in China to ensure the mission work did not completely stop with the en masse exodus of missionaries. He planned to visit his family in Canada, but they would never see each other again.
I confess that while reading this chapter I wondered if Liddell had made the right decision staying in China. After all, a missionary of his calibre could have been a blessing anywhere! But then I realised that it was his stern sense of duty to God that guided him in every decision. It is natural to avoid trouble and seek our safety, but we should not do it at the cost of our duty or calling. Liddell had the courage to put the kingdom of God before his own safety, and his desire to be with his family. It challenges me to learn to pray for courage and not merely protection!
In 1943 Liddell and 2000 other foreign nationals—including 327 children—were interned in Weihsien Camp. While this was not a forced labour camp, the overcrowded conditions, freezing temperatures and lack of sufficient food meant that the detainees had an extremely precarious existence. Realising the need for organisation in order to survive, Liddell and other missionary friends arranged lessons for the young people in the camp and sports activities. Teams were organised to deal with all the necessary tasks, from baking to nursing, and from turning curtains into shirts, to cleaning the overflowing sewers. Eichinger shares a cacophony of voices that bear testimony to Liddell’s constant love and remarkable selflessness during those three years in the camp. Five months before the end of the war, Liddell died in the camp from a brain tumour. Yet, even today, some 70 years after, his light continues to shine bright.
One question haunted me as I turned the pages of this biography: How did he do it? How did Liddell manage to constantly put other people first, even in the internment camp? The answer is both simple and profound: he lived that way every day. Liddell knew, beyond a shadow of any doubt that “the most selfless route is typically the path offering the most peace of mind”. Eric Liddell lived life as a race of faith; every challenge was training, an opportunity to develop spiritual muscle. Each step and every decision he made were teaching him to remain faithful—even while in the camp, malnourished and away from his family. He believed that “we prepare in the days of comfort, for when the days of hardship come, we will be prepared to meet them”.
“Liddell once defined the kingdom of God extremely simply: “The kingdom is where the King reigns.” His life, as beautifully portrayed in Eichinger’s book, is an invitation to allow the King to reign in our hearts.
Vanesa Pizzuto is a freelance journalist and radio broadcaster living in London, UK.