Eric Liddell, British Olympian Who Refused to Run on a Sunday, Inspiring Globally Acclaimed Movie ‘‘Chariots of Fire’’

Eric Liddell and Harold Abrahams,two legendary British athletes won gold in the 400m and 100m at the 1924 Paris Olympics.While both athletes left an indelible mark on the games in their own right, it was Liddell’s singular refusal to run on a Sunday that became the highlight of the games, inspiring the world acclaimed film, “Chariots of Fire.

Eric Liddel. PHOTO: Gazetteer for Scotland

With the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics now firmly behind us, the world is now setting its sights on the next games. The next winter Olympics are scheduled for Beijing in 2022 (this may be subject to change) while the summer Olympics will be in Paris in 2024.

Well, the Paris Olympics will be special in a way. They will be returning to Paris, 100 years after the city hosted the games in 1924 and that will be the third time France would be hosting the games since they were reintroduced in 1896.

The Olympics games are always riddled with all manner of strange stories. But the 1924 games have a hallowed ground in the history of the games.

In that year, British athlete Eric Liddell, left a permanent imprint on the sands of time. In the lead up to the games, he was the bookmarker’s favourite to win the 100 metres dash at the event. It was going to be an epic showdown against his compatriot from London, Harrold Abrahams, another sprint star.

Harold Abrahams (left) and Eric Liddel (right). PHOTO: International Olympic Commitee (IOC)

Ahead of the Paris Olympics, Harold and Liddell were the two fastest athletes in Great Britain, but had never met in any major competition. Thus the Paris games were  being anticipated as a major duel, not just between the two stars, but also against the Americans, who were masters of the 100m dash.

Sorry, I can’t run on a Sunday

What was billed as a battle of titans between Liddell and Abrahams wouldn’t take place, at least in the form that was anticipated. There was a small problem. The story goes that during the 1924 Olympics, the 100m heats were to be on a Sunday. As a devout Christian, Liddell could not race on a Sunday!

Harold Abrahams (centre, no 419) cruises to victory in the 100m at the 1924 Olympics in Paris. PHOTO: International Olympic Committee (IOC).

A son of a Church of Scotland minister, Liddell categorically refused to participate in the race, vowing that he couldn’t sacrifice his religious convictions at the altar of  Olympic glory.

He also abandoned the 4x100m as well as the 4x400m relays as they were both taking place on a Sunday. He put his religious beliefs before King and country.

With Liddell’s absence, Abrahams would go ahead and set an impressive win in the 100m race, clocking 10.6 seconds, to secure a spot in history as the first ever European and only Englishman to win the coveted race, and the record would stand until 1992, when compatriot Linford Christie’s rewrote it.

In an era where  anti-Semitism was rife, Abrahams saw the Olympics as his only chance of redeeming his image, respect and dignity.

 ‘‘I attached so much importance to my athletics as a means of demonstrating that I wasn’t inferior. This played a very big part in my life. There was a certain amount of anti-Semitism when as a young man, as there is a certain amount now. I was bent on demonstrating my superiority over other people both at school and at the university that I bent everything on athletics, ’’ said Abrahams in an interview in  1968.

The Stade de Colombes in Paris, the venue of the 1924 Summer Olympics. PHOTO: IOC

Abrahams had pursued his athletic prowess,  buoyed by his coach, the venerable Scipio Africanus “Sam” Mussabini, one of Britain’s foremost athletics coaches, in whose hands, stars were nurtured. It is still amazing that in the era of amateur athletics, Abrahams would afford a coach of Mussabini’s calibre.

Unlike today where there are elaborate razzmatazz to award the winners at the Olympics,  there was no fanfare at the games. In fact, Abrahams’s medal was sent to him by post three weeks later!

For Liddell, having bolted out of the 100 metres race, he switched to the 400 metres race. Here, he was an outright underdog. A rank outsider. After all, it was never his race. He had never competed in such a race.

But to everyone’s surprise, Liddell ran the race like never seen before. Well, he ran the 400m at the pace of a 100m sprint! And he smashed it at 47.6 seconds, a new Olympic and world record eclipsing the reigning world champion Horatio Finch of the USA!

Eric Liddell wins the 400m at the 1924 Paris Olympics. PHOTO: IOC

At the games, it was the best 400m ever run. “I ran the first 200m as quickly as I could and, with the help of God, I ran the next 200m even more strongly,” said Liddell in an interview with Guardian newspaper years later.

He also participated in the 200m, winning bronze while Abrahams came a distant sixth.

Even at the height of his fame, Liddell was a regular preacher at Christian rallies. ‘‘I want compare faith to running in a race. Where does the power come to see the race to the end? From within,’’ Liddell says in one of the scenes in the Chariots of Fire, played by Ian Charleson.

On the day when the 4x100m was being run, Eric Liddell was preaching at the Scots Kirk, a Church of Scotland church in Paris. The Great Britain  team finished third in the race.

After the Olympics games, Liddell went back to Edinburgh for his graduation in July 1924, at which the Principal of the University capped him with a crown of wild olive and the now-famous words: ‘‘Mr Liddell, you have shown that none can pass you but your examiners.’’ His fellow students lifted him up shoulder high and marched with him in the streets.

According to the International Olympics Committee (IOC), over 3,000 athletes from 44 nations participated at the games, held at the 60,000 seater Stade de Colombes in Paris, with 126 games on the cards.

The 1924 Olympics set the stage for the modern games, as it was the first time an Olympic village was established for the athletes. This has now become a permanent feature of the quadrennial sporting showpiece.

‘‘Chariots of Fire’’

Liddell’s unprecedented decision, inspired a 1981 movie, The Chariots of Fire, produced by David Puttnam, that immortalized  him alongside Abrahams, the two athletes who had demonstrated the power of conviction and the honour of standing for principles that one believes in and never flinching, even in the face of temptations and pressure.

Eric Liddell hoisted shoulder high after his exploits, in a scene from the Chariots of Fire. PHOTO: Hampstead Theatre

In settling on the title of the movie, the screenwriter Colin Welland was also inspired by another epic hymn, And did those feet in ancient time, popularly known in England simply as ‘‘Jerusalem,’’ composed by William Blake in 1916 and would soon be used to galvanize a country at the centre of the First World War.

Bring me my bow of burning gold:
Bring me my arrows of desire:
Bring me my spear: O clouds unfold!
Bring me my chariot of fire.

Jerusalem is now the ‘‘alternative’’ anthem for England, after God Save the Queen/King.

During the games, Liddell, who proudly referred to himself as Scottish, ignored immense pressure from the British Olympics Committee, facing a barrage of criticism for betraying the British cause at the games. Beyond athletics, Liddell was an accomplished rugby player, who turned up for his Edinburgh university, and the Scottish national team.

When he missed the 4x100m, the Manchester Guardian (now the Guardian newspaper) wrote, ”The British team is greatly handicapped by  Liddell’s absence of being unwilling to compete on a Sabbath.’’

In the Chariots of Fire Liddell is depicted in his signature running style. His  head up, looking towards his God. And Eric’s unorthodox running style of flailing arms was a sight to behold.

Higher Calling

Liddell, despite his trailblazing record in the 1924 Olympics, and declining to defend his title in the 1928 Olympics, which were being held on Amsterdam, Netherlands, he instead chose to follow the footsteps of his parents, to China, becoming a missionary and devoting his entire latter life to the church.

After all, he had been born there, and his  parents who were already missionaries there.

Eric Liddell in China during World War II. PHOTO:

On the other hand, Abrahams went on to serve in the British Army in the WWII that would take him to Germany. He died in 1978.

‘‘We represented two sides of the same coin. The gentleman and the player. He was the gentleman. I was the player,’’ said  actor Ben Cross who played Harold Abrahams in the Chariots of Fire.

Liddell on the other  hand died in 1945 of brain tumour at a Japanese prisoners of war internment camp. He was 43. While at the camp, Liddell wrote a book on discipleship, The Disciplines of Christian Life, whose manuscript was first read by fellow prisoners in the camp. It  was published after his death.

Later in 2012, ahead of the London Olympics, the film was re-released in London, as part of the festivities accompanying the games. Actor Nigel Havers, who played Lord  Lindsay in the film, decided to trace the actors in the film to establish what the film meant to them. The film was produced by David Puttnam and directed by Hugh Hudson. The film won four Oscars at the 1982 Academy Awards.

So when the Olympics return to Paris in 2024, it will be a nostalgic walk down memory lane, to the  very place that Eric Liddell and Harold Abrahams, went against all odds to win gold medals and a legacy that will never be forgotten.

The Chariots of Fire, will remain a film that captures the spirit and essence of the Olympic games.

‘‘It (the movie) gave virtue to my belief that whatever you achieve is only achieved by hard work, ’’ said  Sir Trevor MacDonald, Britain’s celebrity news  anchor and journalist in 2012, in the  documentary by Havers..

Perhaps the most memorable aspect of the film, is the main soundtrack, expertly rendered by Greece’s foremost composers, the legendary Evángelos Odysséas Papathanassíou, known professionally as Vangelis.

Greek composer Vangelis. PHOTO: Sportify

The tune was actually an ode to his father, who was a former Olympic athlete.

Immortal Liddell

Besides the Chariots of Fire film, Liddell has been immortalized in two other key places. The first is the Scots Kirk where preached on the days he missed races at the 1924 games.

The Church is situated in the heart of Paris and a stone’s throw from Champs-Elysées. On its website, Eric Liddell has been listed as one of the most prominent people who have ministered at the church, alongside other notable names such as American President Woodrow Wilson and British Prime Minister David Lloyd George.

The Scots Kirk church in Paris, where Liddell was preaching on the days he missed the races that were falling on a Sunday. PHOTO: Scots Kirk Paris.

Then there is his alma mater, the University of Edinburgh. In honour of one of their legendary alumni, the university runs the Eric Liddell High Performance Scholarships to support students highly talented in sports.

The High Performance Scholarships award between £250.00-£1000.00 (Between KSh. 37,000-150,000 at current exchange rates)  per athlete in each academic year, with 10 beneficiaries identified and awarded each year.

The Eric Liddell Centre now carries the memories of the legendary athlete to the world and future generations. Situated in Edinburgh, the charitable organization started in 1978 mobilizes community to champion causes like dementia, disabilities and other mental health concerns.

Several books have also been written about Liddell’s extraordinary life. But for many years to come, the legend of Eric Henry Liddell, a man born on 16th January 1902 in Tientsin (Tianjin)  North China, and the second son of the Reverend and Mrs. James Dunlop Liddell, will remain etched in the annals of the games, because of that singular action of standing for what he believed in. His faith.

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