Eric Liddell was getting ready to stand in front of hundreds of eager listeners in Scots Kirk on Rue Bayard. He had been invited to speak, and while the most of the media ignored the news, one reporter that went to listen to him said almost as many came to hear him preach as had been to the Olympic stadium to see him run.
Eric looked on as the resident minister introduced him.
Almost one year earlier, Eric had dropped out of an international competition final because it would run on Sunday. He ran on Saturday, and then preached on Sunday. Proclaiming to the people that there “could be no neutrality [where] Christianity was concerned. Each one comes to a cross-roads at some point of his life and must make his decision for or against His Master.”
He wouldn’t compromise his Sabbath observance for king, country or sport.
Then in the fall of 1923, leading up to the 1924 Olympics, he had announced to the British Olympic Committee that he wouldn’t be competing in the 100 meters, even though he was the fastest Great Britain at that distance. He also wouldn’t be running in the 4×100 or 4×400 relays, because they too had qualifying or final races taking place on Sunday. He would race in the 200 meters and the 400 meters. The later he hadn’t performed well in and had only run it 6 or 7 times before.
After telling the British Olympic Committee his intentions he was brought in to discuss his decision. They tried to tell Eric he was missing an opportunity for personal glory and fame. He didn’t want it.
They tried to appeal to his patriotism. He answered to a higher King.
They tried to reason with him, saying that in France, the Sabbath officially ends at noon, so he could go to church in the morning and then race in the afternoon. He said, “My Sabbath lasts all day.”
Finally, they said that since God made him fast, wouldn’t he be doing God’s will by competing. He explained, it was God’s gift and He would expect Eric to keep His commandments still.
As Eric walked to the front, he was aware that public opinion had largely been against him, until his race in the 400 meters. Many writers and public officials, said insulting things about Eric and his refusal to compete for the crown in his best event. It was a difficult time for Eric, leading up to the Olympics. He was even heard to ask himself, “Did I make the right decision?” only to be followed up quickly with a resolute, “Yes, I did.”
As he looked at the faces in the congregation, he knew there were many that respected him for his decision. His own teammates had even encouraging him. His coach never doubted him. And now he was the reigning 400-meter gold medalist, who set a world record.
Those in attendance had either seen or heard how he flew out of the start, continuing a pace that would have almost won him gold in the 200 meters, and then continue on to finish 10 meters ahead of the competition. An unprecedented strategy, but it was his plan all along.
Eric spoke with a quiet, sincere conviction born from his experience of walking with God in his life. The crowd listened intently to what he had to say. He wasn’t preachy, or apologetic in his delivery. He spoke plainly.
His message for this meeting was Psalm 119:18 – “Open thou mine eyes that I may behold wondrous things out of thy law.” While putting his trust in God, Eric trained hard the other six days and kept the commandments as best he could. The wondrous thing was an incredible performance and a triumphant victory.
Amidst all the fan fair that followed Eric after his Olympic performance in 1924, he never faltered in his ultimate desire to follow his parent’s example and go to China as a missionary. He would die a prisoner at an internment camp under Japanese rule in 1945 shortly before the end of World War II. But even in the prisoner camp, he encouraged people, organized games for the youth and even prayed for the Japanese. An incredible example of fighting a good fight and winning the race.
As I researched Eric Liddell, I was very impressed with his consistency. He was a great competitor, and a good sport. He was the first to congratulate winners and competitors alike, no matter the outcome.
He wasn’t built for the 400 meters and had terrible mechanics, but he worked hard and enjoyed the work it took to be great. He started working immediately at his new distance as soon as he decided not to compete in the 100 meters, not when he arrived in Paris for the Olympics. He didn’t throw away months of training during the week before the race like some of the American athletes, who ate too much and didn’t train to stay in good health. He was consistent.
To achieve greatness at something, it’s better to do a little each day, than a lot in one day. And when you work at it, give it your best effort. His motto was, “If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing well.”
What do you want to improve at? What can you do to get better at it today, this week, this month?
Eric Liddell is immortalized in the 1981 film Chariot’s of Fire. It’s a good movie, though some facts were skewed. Click here to see a cool video about the movie and the real people that were portrayed.