He found an interview with Horatio Fitch, who raced Liddell in the 400 meters at the Paris Olympics. Fitch had broken the world record in one of the semi-final heats, and in his interview in 1984 Fitch said, “Our coach told me not to worry about Liddell because he was a sprinter, and he’d pass out 50 yards from the finish.” The 1981 movie Chariots of Fire shows how Liddell was expected to prove himself the fastest man alive in the 100 meters, but refused to run a heat on a Sunday, the Lord’s Day. Liddell ended up breaking Fitch’s world record in the 400 meters, beating him by five meters. It was decades before the spread between first and second in that race was greater.
The new film about Liddell, On Wings of Eagles, shows him being challenged to run on a Sunday in the internment camp in which he was incarcerated in China, and the movie does not really flesh out that challenge. I had been meaning to look up more about Liddell refereeing athletic events on Sundays because fights were breaking out when he wasn’t there. Metaxas captures that with a quote from Joyce Stranks Cotterill, who later married one of Eric’s roommates in the internment camp, Joe Cotterill. Joyce said Liddell
came to the feeling that a need existed, [and] it was the Christlike thing to do to let them play with the equipment and to be with them…because it was more Christlike to do it than to [follow] the letter of the law and let them run amok by themselves.
In the new film Eric’s reason to run was also more Christlike than following the letter of the law, in fact he saw it as a matter of life and death. Joseph Fiennes (who plays Liddell in the film) does a fine job carrying the weight of the challenge in his countenance. I was just disappointed that it wasn’t explored more in the film.
My favorite discovery in Metaxas’ book comes from a blog post quoting Eric’s teacher in college (high school in the American system), A. P. Cullen. I call him Uncle Rooper in my one-man play about Liddell, Beyond the Chariots. It was a childhood nickname that somehow followed him into adulthood. Eric followed him to China where they taught alongside each other, and they were later imprisoned together in the Japanese internment camp. Cullen recorded what he said at Liddell’s funeral:
He was literally God-Controlled, in his thoughts, judgements, actions, words to an extent I have never seen surpassed, and rarely seen equalled. Every morning he rose early to pray and read the Bible in silence: talking and listening to God, pondering the day ahead and often smiling as if at a private joke.
Metaxas does a brilliant job summarizing every chapter of Liddell’s life but one. There’s no mention of Liddell’s world-class running that continued in China. Beyond the Chariots portrays how he tied the winning times for the Amsterdam Olympics in 1928 at a meet in China with Olympic athletes from France and Japan. For a fuller exploration of those athletic exploits I recommend David McCasland’s Pure Gold: Eric Liddell and John Keddie’s Running the Race. I count McCasland’s the authoritative biography on Liddell, and Keddie was a Scottish runner himself and tied Eric’s time on at least one track.
I believe the fact that Liddell continued to run at world-class speed after moving to China only one year after winning Olympic gold amplifies his sacrifice to leave all of that glory behind to give his all to the One who gave His all for him.
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