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Eric Liddell: “He That Honors Me I Will Honor”

5 min

The headlines in all the British newspapers expressed mingled shock and admiration. Olympian Eric Liddell had refused to run the 100-meter dash! Eric was widely seen, even by his rivals, as the clear winner for that race’s gold medal at the 1924 Olympic Games in Paris. Great Britain had not won a gold in the 100-meter dash since the revival of the Olympic Games in 1896. Expectations were high for Eric Liddell. Despite his awkward running style of pumping his knees high almost to his chest and gazing into the sky as he neared the tape, Eric Liddell had won race after race, setting record after record. When the schedule for the Olympic qualifying heats was published, tremendous pressure was placed on the young Scottish athlete to soften his stance on a particular matter. Because the qualifying heats were to be held on the Lord’s Day, Eric Liddell refused to run.

Friends condescendingly pointed out to Eric that the qualifying heats were in the afternoon. They proposed that Eric could attend church in the morning and then run in the afternoon. However, Eric’s mind was made up. The Bible that he loved said “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.”

Instead of running the shorter race in which he was expected to win, Eric Liddle was entered in the longer 200-meter run, as well as the even longer 400-meter run. He was considered a poor contestant for these particular races as he had proven to be faster in the shorter, sprinter’s race. On the day that the 200-meter run was held at the Olympics in Paris, Eric came in behind two Americans to take the bronze medal. Eric Liddell and his stand for the Lord’s Day was all but forgotten.

As the 400-meter run approached, Eric barely managed to qualify. A Swiss runner named Josef Imbach was favored to win the race. In the qualifying heats, Imbach had set a new world record at 48.0 seconds! Another British runner, Guy Butler, was considered a strong contender for the gold. A celebrated American named Horatio Fitch was also expected to do well. Eric was considered too much of a sprinter for the longer 400-meter. The other runners took little notice of him. But as Eric was leaving his hotel on the morning of the race, his masseur handed him a slip of paper. On the paper was a simple note: “In the old Book it says, ‘He that honors me I will honor.’ Wishing you the best of success always.” (This note expressed a paraphrase of I Samuel 2:30.)

Few even noticed Eric Liddell when he took his place in the outside lane—the worst spot in the lineup! At the crack of the pistol, Eric was off! He sprinted forward into a three-meter lead right away. People who understood running smiled. A typical sprinter! They were sure Eric could not keep it up. But he did! Onward and onward, Eric ran without relenting. One of the Americans, Fitch, passed Guy Butler, the British favorite, and inched toward Eric for a few seconds. But the “flying Scotsman” ran even faster and increased his lead! His arms windmilled wildly in the air. His legs pumped up and down. His chin jutted forward toward the tape!

From the astonished crowd, a host of Union Jacks emerged from the laps of waiting fans to urge the Scotsman to victory. Alone on the outside and five meters ahead of the nearest runner, Eric Liddell sprinted toward the tape to a wild shout of admiration. As the flag of his country was raised, the announcer called out that Eric Liddle of Scotland had just set a new 400-meter world record of 47.6 seconds! The story of Eric’s victory in Paris has been told many times in different ways, with varying degrees of accuracy.

The story that is told less often is the story of Eric’s subsequent victories. After his Olympic victory, Eric Liddle spoke all over Scotland at various evangelistic meetings. Crowds flocked to hear the humble man who was bashful about his trophies but bold about his Savior. At his graduation from the University of Edinburgh, he was given a laurel crown and pulled through the streets of Edinburgh by his classmates in a carriage minus a horse. He astonished everyone when he announced that he was leaving his fame behind to follow his father’s footsteps and go as a missionary to China, his birthplace. He served in the coastal city of Tianjin.

In China, Eric married Florence McKenzie, the daughter of a Canadian missionary. “Flo,” as he called her, was ten years younger than Eric. She was a wonderful wife, and the Lord blessed Eric and Flo with three daughters. Japanese invasion threatened China when Flo was expecting their third child. Eric sent his wife and daughters to safety in Canada, while he stayed to minister to the Chinese people that he had come to love, yet hoped to join his family before long.

Eric Liddell was captured by the Japanese, along with other missionaries and foreign businessmen, and taken to an internment camp. In the camp, he was a constant encouragement to his fellow prisoners. When about 300 European children from a boarding school were delivered to the camp, Eric took special interest in them. They trusted the gentle follower of Christ. Some of the prisoners in the camp never even knew that the Eric they lived with every day was the famous Eric Liddell who had won the Olympic gold medal in Paris. He never spoke of himself but he always talked of his Lord and Master, Jesus Christ. Liddell participated in the games of the children as their helper and referee. He always encouraged the children to remember the Sabbath Day, to keep it holy.

As the war continued, some of Eric’s closest friends gradually realized that something was wrong with him. His speech became slurred. He began having long and painful headaches. Eric, once a runner, became unsure of his step. The fastest man in the world was slowing down. Yet, he shrugged off his troubles in his service to others. Although never diagnosed, the belief today is that Eric Liddell had a brain tumor.

One day, while talking with a young girl about the will of the Lord, Eric sank back with the word “surrender” on his lips. At that moment, Eric Liddell had finished his course and crossed the finish line into the eternal Sabbath rest that awaits believers.

He was buried in a simple grave in China only a few weeks before the war ended. A band of fellow prisoners sang his favorite hymn, “Be Still My Soul.” His young wife and daughters received the sad news with a Christian’s hope, just as Eric would have wanted. The nations of the world, seemingly calloused to death after the horrific years of World War II, still paused to shed a tear over the news that Eric Liddell, the famous Olympian, was dead. But the flying Scotsman had not died in vain. He had shown the world what it meant to be a humble, gracious winner. An unbeliever who lived side by side with Eric as a prisoner in the camp perhaps gave the greatest tribute when he said of Eric Liddell, “Jesus Christ lived in our camp.”

Sources and Further Reference:

McCasland, David. Eric Liddell: Pure Gold. Grand Rapids, MI: Discovery House Publishers, 2004.

Swift, Catherine. Eric Liddell. Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House Publishers, 1990.

This article is from our Matters of Life & Death teaching series.

This article is from our Matters of Life & Death teaching series.

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