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History Book: Running the race


WORLD Radio - History Book: Running the race

Eric Liddell’s legacy exceeds his gold-medal victory at the 1924 Olympics

Eric Liddell at the 1924 Summer Olympic Games in Paris, France on July 11, 1924 Associated Press Photo

NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is Monday, July 8, 2024. Good morning! This is The World and Everything in It from listener-supported WORLD Radio. I’m Nick Eicher.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard.


On July 11th, 1924, a humble Scott faced five of the world’s fastest runners in the 400 meter dash during the Paris Olympics. The moment is the climax of the 1981 movie Chariots of Fire, but what happened after that famous race? WORLD’s Paul Butler has the story.

MOVIE CLIP: I won't run on the Sabbath. And that's final.

PAUL BUTLER: When Eric Liddell refused to run the 100 meter dash for his country because of his Christian convictions it was a crisis for the English Olympic committee. They pressured him to reconsider, but he stood on principle. Ian Charleson played Eric Liddell in Chariots of Fire

MOVIE CLIP: God makes kings and the rules by which they govern, and those rules say that the Sabbath is his, and I, for one, intend to keep it that way.

JOHN MACMILLAN: He was an absolute winner. But winning was not everything to him at the same time…

John MacMillan is Chief Executive of the Eric Liddell Community…

MACMILLAN: His Christianity was at the center of his being, at the center of who he was, what he stood for.

Many people applauded Liddell as a man of conviction. But others believed when it came to the Olympics, personal beliefs should take a back seat to national honor.

PATRICIA: He was not a Bible thumper. He lived a joyous life.

88-year old Patricia Liddell Russell is Eric Liddell’s daughter.

PATRICIA: Oh, the press and people had been quite, “How could you do this? It's just a running of a race.” And He came under great criticism.

Eventually the team decided Liddell could run the 200 meter and 400 meter events and give his 100 meter spot to a teammate.

PATRICIA: For him to give up the 100, my mother said to me, it was no big deal. That was just his way.

On July 9th, Liddell won a bronze medal in the 200 meter race. Just two days later he ran two qualifying heats before the final 400 meter race a few hours after. As a sprinter, no one expected him to do well in that third race. Not only did he win, but he set a world record.

PATRICIA: He loved winning that race. He loved winning that race, but I think it was his faith that made the man.

That faith began at an early age. Eric Liddell was the second-born son of missionaries to China. He began attending boarding school for missionary sons in South London at age six. Patricia tells one story that foreshadows Eric’s principles.

PATRICIA: There was a quad there, like an area, no bicycles allowed. So anyway, one day, one of the professors was going through the quad on his bicycle, and young Eric leaned out the window and said, “No bicycles are allowed there.” Cheeky little devil, you know…[laughter]

After the 1924 Olympics, Liddell came home to a hero’s welcome. Everywhere he went, people flocked to hear him speak. He traveled across the United Kingdom headlining evangelistic meetings while continuing to run for the next year. He was dominant on the track.

MACMILLAN: He wanted to test himself against the best. He wanted to do everything he could to win, but he did that in a very sort of considerate and compassionate manner.

Yet just one year after his 400-meter victory on the world stage, he arrived in China to finish his studies before becoming a missionary like his parents. When he set off to complete his training, he was asked why, as such a promising athlete, he was leaving it all behind. He said simply: “Christ for the world, for the world needs Christ.”

In 1934, Liddell married Florence Mackenzie, a nurse whose Canadian parents were also missionaries. They soon had two daughters. It was a happy home. But it wasn’t long before international conflicts turned their world upside down. Once again, John MacMillan:

MACMILLAN: China was becoming very dangerous. Understandably, Eric wanted his wife, his pregnant wife, and two young children, not to be caught in the middle of that. So, he ensured their passage home to his wife's parents home in Canada.

In 1943, Japan controlled Northern China and began rounding up thousands of Westerners, sending them to an internment camp. Liddell was one of 1800 prisoners squeezed into a city-block sized compound. It was his home for two years. He took turns leading religious services and as an educator and athlete he worked with the children.

MACMILLAN: Eric shone like a beacon of hope and enthusiasm, and he made sure that children and young people were kept active, that they had things to do.

The last time Eric Liddell saw his own daughter Patricia, she was just six years old. She admits it was a struggle.

PATRICIA: As a child, I used to say, why aren't you with us? And then I met some of them, and I thought, well, maybe that's what's meant to be. You know, he saved a lot of children, survived mentally and spiritually.

Just five months before the Allies liberated the internment camp, Eric Liddell lay on his deathbed. In a shaky hand he wrote: “Be Still My Soul, the Lord is on Your Side.” A Salvation Army band also interred in the camp played the song at his funeral.

PATRICIA: Be still, my soul; the hour is hast'ning on when we shall be forever with the Lord, when disappointment, grief, and fear are gone, sorrow forgot, love's purest joys restored. Be still, my soul; when change and tears are past, all safe and blessed we shall meet at last.

The life of Eric Liddell ended without earthly fanfare. But John MacMillan and others believe his legacy is important to preserve.

MACMILLAN: There is a danger that Eric Liddell, and who he was, what he stood for, his achievements might become a forgotten iconic figure.

The Eric Liddell 100 is a year-long commemoration launched in an effort to reintroduce a new generation to the life and legacy of Eric Liddell, 100 years after his Olympic win. It’s a great blessing for his daughter Patricia:

PATRICIA: It's changed our lives, not having him, but there were thousands and thousands of women who’s husbands did not return, you know. So how could we say we're special? Because we're not. And I mean, for me now, it is a huge gift, to have this remembrance of him.

That’s this week’s WORLD History Book. I’m Paul Butler.

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