Eric Liddell considered that Sunday was for going to church, not for taking part in athletic events.
D o we stand up for our beliefs no matter what pressures are brought to bear? Oh sure, we all say that we would, but - if we are going to be frank - many of us have never been tested. How would we do?
Eric Liddell was a top athlete and very keen sprinter who was chosen to represent his country at the 1924 Paris Olympics. Being a superb athlete he really wanted to represent his country but there was a problem; his 'heat' to try out for the 100 metres was to be run on a Sunday. For Eric Liddell, Sunday was for going to church, not for running in races, for he was a committed Christian. Eric had arrived in Paris full of excited anticipation, so discovering that his all-important heat was to be run on a Sunday was a huge blow for him.
Could he compromise on just this one occasion?
After much soul-searching, he decided not to. But what had brought this highly sincere young man to this point?
Eric Henry Liddell was born on 16th January, 1902 in Tientsin, which is part of northern China. His parents, Mr and Mrs. James Dunlop Liddell were missionaries with the London Mission Society. He was educated from 1908 to 1920 at Eltham College, Blackheath, England, a school for the children of missionaries. Eric, with his older brother Rob, were left at their boarding school while their parents and sister, Jenny, returned to China. In 1920, Eric joined his brother Rob at Edinburgh University to read for a degree in Pure Science. He graduated after the Paris Olympics in 1924.
Athletics and rugby played a large part in Eric’s University life. He was a sprinter for Edinburgh University, and later for Scotland. He played rugby for Edinburgh University and in 1922 played in seven Scottish Internationals. So it could be said that both Christian mission and sport were in his blood.
As a result of having insufficient time for both running and rugby, he chose the former, aiming for the 100 metres in the Paris Olympics. He was duly chosen for the British team, but when arriving in Paris for the Olympics he learned of a problem: the heats for his chosen sprint were to be run on a Sunday; he was hugely disappointed but decided to switch to the 400 metres competition. The timing of the heats for this race presented no problem. Normally this just wasn't Eric's event; he was a 100 metres man. As he made this switch he knew that many would be critical of him, "why is this man jeopardizing his once-in-a-lifetime opportunity?" - he could just hear the comments in advance. But, for Eric, Sunday was about going to church, not about taking part in athletic events. He saw a principle and it was one he did not want to compromise over! Enormous pressure was put upon Liddell, even from some quite eminent people, but he saw no reason to compromise.
When the day of his sprint final came, Eric sent up his customary prayer. To the surprise of many, he won the gold medal even though for Liddell, this was not expected. So he won the 400 metres sprint gold and even got a bronze in the 200 metres at these Paris Olympics.
So success came in a most unexpected manner.
Eric refused to compromise and perhaps our generous Lord rewarded him for his sincerity and for withstanding the great pressure which had been put on him in order to get him to change his mind.
After the Olympics and his graduation, Eric Liddell went back to North China to serve as a missionary which had always been his intention. He served from 1925 to 1943 in this capacity, initially in Tientsin (Tainjin) and later in Siaochang. Upon returning to Britain for a brief spell in 1932 he was ordained as a minister. But he soon returned to China, where he married Florence Mackenzie, a Canadian missionary. The couple had three daughters; Patricia, Heather and Maureen, all of whom later settled in Canada.
Eric Liddell came from a section of the church which looked upon Sunday as a continuation of the Sabbath, rather than simply as 'The Lord's Day' which celebrated the resurrection, the sabbath having been fulfilled in Christ (Matthew 11:28-30). That was his belief and the belief of those who had brought him to the faith. Eric Liddell was being faithful to that principle and he should be admired for his faithful stance. Theologically, one could possibly take issue with that particular doctrinal point of view but one must respect such sincerity and Eric had such sincerity in bucket loads.
For Eric Liddell it was the right decision, and his name has rightly become somewhat celebrated among Christians for his refusal to compromise over what he understood to be a vital Christian principle. These events of the 1924 Olympics were also the subject of the 1981 movie, 'Chariots of Fire.'
Robin A. Brace. July 19th, 2012.