January 16 is the birthday of Eric Liddell.
Liddell (1902–1945) was a Scottish athlete and missionary. He is best known for being forced to choose between his religious beliefs and competing in Sunday events at the 1924 Summer Olympic Games.
Liddell’s Olympic training and racing, and the religious convictions that influenced him, are depicted in the 1981 film Chariots of Fire.
Eric H. Liddell was born in China, a son of parents who were Scottish missionaries with the London Missionary Society. At age five, he and his brother were sent to England for schooling, first at a London boarding school for the sons of missionaries, and later at Oxford College.
Liddell was an outstanding sportsman and while at college became well known as the fastest runner in Scotland. Newspapers dubbed him the “Flying Scotsman” and carried stories of his feats at track meets. Many articles foresaw his participation in the Olympic Games.
Liddell did become a member of the British Olympic Team at the 1924 Summer Olympics, which were held in Paris. Devout in his faith, Liddell refused to run in a heat held on Sunday (the Christian sabbath) and was forced to withdraw from the 100 metres race, his best event. Instead, he qualified for the 400 metres, although his best time in this event had been unimpressive.
On the day of the Olympic 400 metres final, while Liddell was in the starting blocks, a member of the American team handed him a piece of paper with a quotation from 1 Samuel 2:30: “Those who honor me will I honor.”
To the astonishment of the running world, Liddell not only won the 400 metre event but set a new Olympic record with a time that remained unexcelled for 12 years.
After the Olympics, Liddell returned to China to serve as a missionary with his parents and older sister. Aside from two furloughs in Scotland, he remained in China until his death in a Japanese internment camp in 1945.
In 2008, just before the Beijing Olympics, Chinese authorities revealed that Liddell had refused an opportunity to leave the camp as part of a British/Japanese prisoner exchange, instead giving his place to a pregnant woman then living in the camp. News of this compassionate act of sacrifice was a surprise even to his family.
In a letter to his wife written on the day he died, Liddell spoke of suffering a nervous breakdown due to overwork. Although overwork and malnourishment may certainly have hastened his death, Liddell was later determined to have suffered with an inoperable brain tumor. According to a fellow missionary, Liddell’s last words were, “It’s complete surrender,” in reference to yielding his will and his life to God.
The camp was liberated only five months after Liddell’s death.
Liddell is memorialized with a monument at his burial site in Weifang, China. The city of Weifang remembered Liddell during the 60th anniversary of the internment camp’s liberation by laying a wreath at his grave.
He is also honored with a memorial plaque at Edinburgh University. The Eric Liddell Centre in Edinburgh keeps alive Liddell’s compassionate Christian values and ethic of community service. And the liturgical calendar of the Episcopal Church (USA) remembers Liddell with a feast day on 22 February.
In the following scene from Chariots of Fire, Eric Liddell (portrayed by Ian Charleson) delivers a sermon at a church in Paris, in which he quotes the 40th chapter of Isaiah, decrying the vanity of men and ending with the promise that “they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint.”
This passage of scripture appears on the memorial headstone to Liddell at his gravesite on the grounds of the former Weihsien Internment Camp in Shandong Province, northeast China.