Paris was uncommonly hot during the 1924 Summer Olympic Games—a steaming cauldron with temperatures up to 113 degrees. In the 10,000-meter cross-country, runners were “dropping like flies.”
On Friday, July 11, 1924, an English masseur handed a harshly criticized Scottish runner a note that read, “In the old book, it says, ‘He that honors me I will honor.’ Wishing you the best of success always.” Later that day, the Scotsman lined up for a race that he was running, more or less, as a concession to his own religious convictions. Moments later he streaked to an Olympic record in the 400 meters. Eric Liddell ran into the record books and eventually onto millions of movie and TV screens. Furthermore, he gained temporal honor and an immortal crown.
Erick Liddell never met David Puttnam, but their names are forever linked in film-making history. Puttnam was a secular movie-maker who produced Midnight Express, which, as one author put it, was “a shattering exposure of human nature at its most bestial.” It was reported that Puttnam had noted the film’s cynicism and was highly disillusioned by its smash success.
While lying ill shortly after completing Mid-night Express, Puttnam casually began reading in a book entitled, The Official History of the Olympic Games. He was drawn to the account of the 1924 games. “…a bandy-legged little Scottish divinity student, who, driven from his favorite event, the 100 metres, by his religious scruples which prevented him from running on Sunday, surprised himself and everybody else by winning the 400 metres in record time.”
Puttnam’s curiosity was fired. Further, he longed to make a film exalting idealism and heroism instead of mere grubby human nature. Out of this brief brush with the account of the 1924 Paris Olympics came the Puttnam-produced Chariots of Fire, which surprised everyone by winning the Oscar for Best Picture at the 1981 Academy Awards.
Erick Liddell is often described as Scotland’s greatest athlete. Born in China of missionary parents and educated in England and Scotland, he decided early to follow his parents’ footsteps into missionary labors in his adopted land.
In both China and at school in Great Britain, Eric and his brother won most all the footraces they entered. A shy fellow, with a rather poor speaking ability, Eric lost only a single race in Scotland out of the countless events he entered.
In the early period of his athletic rise to fame, Liddell spoke at an evangelistic meeting where he publicly confessed Christ. From then on, he never avoided any chance to witness for his Christian faith nor did he ever doubt that his life’s race would take him back to China.
In 1923, with the Olympics drawing near, Liddell won two critical races and entered a third. Something happened that day that may have made it the greatest race of modern athletics. In the 440 yards, a competitor knocked Eric to the ground. Amazingly, although he’d lost a full 20 yards, he recovered, churned off anew and somehow won the race. One newspaper said, “It was a performance bordering on the miraculous.”
All the veteran runners claimed it was the greatest track performance they’d ever seen. It was even more so since Liddell had an unorthodox running style in which his arms flailed the air, his knees pumped too high and he finished with head up, mouth open and eyes closed.
But the most challenging time of his life lay ahead in the Paris Olympics of 1924. With the reputation of Edinburgh University, Scotland and Great Britain hanging on Liddell’s sure victory in the 100-meter, he stunned everyone by quietly refusing to run in the qualifying heats because they were to be run on Sunday. Liddell held a firm reverence for the Lord’s Day, and he steadfastly refused to run, despite crushing pressure to abandon his conviction. “I am not running on a Sunday,” he said.
Harold Abrahams, a young Jewish racer who seemed to be more preoccupied with athletic success than the easy spiritual exuberance of Liddell, was assigned to take his place. When Abrahams was flashing to victory in Liddell’s heat, the committed Christian athlete was preaching the Gospel in a Paris church.
But such a unique national resource as Liddell would be unwisely wasted. When his unbending decision became apparent, he was entered in the 400-meter, which no one really expected him to win. Earlier on the day of the race, a team trainer passed that simple note to Liddell: “In the old book, it says, ‘He that honors me I will honor.’” The reference was taken from I Samuel 2:30. “…now the LORD says…those who honor Me I will honor.”
As the soaring temperature roasted the runners, Liddell was lined up in the outside lane—the worst he could have drawn since he would be unable to see the other runners at the start of the race. Summoning unknown strength, Liddell set a blistering pace as though the first part of the race were a sprint, and then, amazingly, he picked up the pace toward the finish line, crossing in world record time. The spectators nearly went berserk. Seasoned track men cheered, one saying, “Liddell is the greatest quarter-miler ever seen.” Harsh criticism of his former stand gave way to unbridled applause.
Instead of remaining to savor his victory, Liddell, according to biographer Sally Magnusson, “...did not stay around long in the stadium after the race. He had an address to deliver on Sunday at a church service, and he slipped quietly away to prepare it.” Liddell also refused to run in the 4x100 and 4x400-meter relays because the finals were on Sunday. His conviction probably cost Great Britain the gold medals. Again that Sunday, Eric was preaching instead of running.
What was there in this superior athlete that compelled him to preach rather than run? Erick Liddell was completely sold out to the Lord, and the challenge of finishing the course for Christ absorbed his vision.
In fact, his running, unconventional though it was, bespoke his faith. Liddell finished races with eyes closed and head up. When actor Ian Charleson, who played Liddell in Chariots of Fire, attempted to duplicate it, he finally concluded, “At drama school we used to do what were called ‘trust exercises,’ where you run as hard as you can towards a wall and trust some-one to stop you…. Liddell must have run like that. He…trusted to get there. He ran with faith. ... He just let go, completely relaxed.”
Scriptwriter Colin Welland learned about Liddell’s character by interviewing John Keddie, a Scottish runner whose life had been dramatically changed when his minister brother had given him a booklet on Liddell. Keddie was so impressed by Liddell’s life that he joined a Christian group and also refused to run on Sunday. Keddie told Welland how Liddell preached, how he expressed himself and what he would and wouldn’t say. It is Keddie’s image of the long-dead Liddell that people saw in Chariots of Fire.
Liddell’s sister once reported that Erick had said of his success in the 440-yards, “The first half I run as fast as I can, and the second half I run faster with God's help.” Liddell confided to an interviewer that he had just “gone all out” in the 400-meter in Paris, a characteristic reflection of Liddell’s total life.
The influence of Liddell on both Puttnam and Charleson was enormous. Looking for a hero with the usual inner turmoil on which to build cinema tension, Puttnam found instead a calm but interesting Christian. He eventually paid Liddell the ultimate compliment by saying, “...Liddell is the man I would like to be and try to pretend I am.”
Charleson admitted that Liddell had incredible faith. “I think it took precedence over everything—even over himself. In order to understand him, I read the Bible from beginning to end. I had to find something in the Christian faith that I could feel with him. And I found lots in it that is very true for anybody.” About playing Liddell, Charleson said, “I learned a lot from the man. That may sound corny, but it's true."
Just one year after his victory in Paris, at the height of his athletic career, Eric Liddell returned to China to preach and teach and live all out for Christ. Every morning he spent an hour in prayer and Bible study. China was a troubled country, and civil war eventually broke out. When the Japanese invaded China during World War II, the country became a war-torn bloodbath. Eric eventually sent his pregnant wife and two young daughters to safety in Canada.
In 1943, Liddell, along with other British, American and “enemy nationals,” was sent by the Japanese to an internment camp. Even in the stinking, overpopulated camp, Eric continued to live for Christ. One internee later said that Liddell “…was without a doubt the person…most respected and loved in camp.” Sally Magnusson wrote that the internees’ memories of Liddell kept coming back to “the way he lived his Christianity.”
It was in the internment camp, two years later, away from the cheers of victory and far from family and the comforts of home, that Eric Liddell went into the presence of Jesus Christ. Suffering from malnutrition and hard labor, he succumbed to an undiagnosed brain tumor. No one knew how sick he was; Liddell never complained. At the very last, he turned to a missionary who had served with him, and said through dying lips, “Annie, it’s complete surrender.” And Scotland’s greatest athlete finally finished the race.
Or did he? At the 1980 Moscow Olympic Games—56 years after Liddell’s victory—fellow Scotsman Allan Wells won the 100-meter. Wells said he had run it for Eric Liddell, who had been dead for 35 years. Liddell runs again and again. In fact, he runs every time someone watches Chariots of Fire or reads an account such as this.
David Puttnam brought Liddell’s story to the screen because he believed the public was aching for heroism again. It needed what Puttnam needed. He described his encounter with Liddell in Chariots of Fire as a “hot shower.” Midnight Express had dredged the filth of human nature to surprise rave reviews. “So for me it has been a very cathartic film. It has made me feel clean again.”
Puttnam also said, “...I am now absolutely convinced that we are not able to live without an injection of something additional in our lives. Four years ago, I couldn’t have said that. I believe absolutely in God, and during the time I have been working on this film all of these beliefs happened to solidify….”
He came close to admitting God’s sovereignty by stating, “I sometimes wonder: what made me suddenly find the paragraph in that book when I had been reading that kind of thing for years without noticing Liddell?” Christians know what made Puttnam discover Liddell. Noting the irrepressible faith of Abel, the author of Hebrews wrote, “…he being dead still speaks.” (Hebrews 11:4) Those who put their trust in Jesus Christ never really die. (John 11:26)
“Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith…” (Heb. 12:1 & 2) We are not intimidated by the besieging armies of the enemy but envision chariots of fire round about God’s servants. (II Kings 6:15-17)
At the end of life’s race, those chariots are likely seen again. (II Kings 2:11) I suspect Erick Liddell welcomed them as he passed from that miserable internment camp deathbed into the victor’s circle in Heaven.
Erick Liddell’s trust in Jesus Christ as his personal Savior assured him of eternity in Heaven. If you do not have that assurance, surrender your life completely to Jesus Christ. His sacrificial death on the cross as punishment for our sins and His resurrection from the dead assures victory over sin and death for those who trust Him. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son [Christ], that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” (John 3:16) Only through Him, can we truly “run with faith.”
God’s ways are marvelous and beyond human wisdom. Complete surrender to the will of God is still the best investment for temporal impact and eternal reward.
Scripture verses are from The Holy Bible, New King James Version, © 1982, Thomas Nelson, Inc.
The Flying Scotsman by Sally Magnusson, Quartet Books, New York, NY, 1981
Eric Liddell: Pure Gold by David McCasland, Discovery House Publishers, Grand Rapids, MI, 2001