At the Paris Olympics in July 1924, the Scottish runner Eric Liddell won a gold medal in the 400 metres. It was a spectacular race and produced a world record.
Eric was hailed as a hero on his return home to Edinburgh.
And, surprisingly, he continued to be honoured as a hero for the rest of his life.
A fan club was dedicated to him. A Scout Patrol was named after him. A strip cartoon was written about him in a comic for boys. And nearly 40 years after his death, an award winning film, Chariots of Fire, was inspired by him.
Eric stands in marked contrast to the other athletes of the Paris Olympics. Many others also performed spectacularly. Indeed, some did considerably better than Eric, winning three or four gold medals. Nonetheless, they were quickly forgotten.
So why was Eric Liddell singled out for fame and respect for the rest of his life?
The secret to Eric’s astonishing success is that he was prepared to be a loser for the Lord Jesus Christ.
Eric was scheduled to run in the 100 metres in the Paris Games. It was a forgone conclusion that he would win. He had been training long and hard for the race. He was fast—the fastest in the world. Then only days before the race, it was announced that the heats for the 100 metres were to be run on a Sunday.
As a Christian, Eric considered Sunday to be the Lord’s Day, a day set aside for rest and worship. He felt that if he ran on Sunday he would dishonour his Lord and Saviour.
So he decided not to run. No one could persuade him otherwise.
News of Eric’s decision shocked people everywhere. Some admired him for following his principles. Others were simply bewildered. How could a man who was certain to be a winner let some vague principle turn him into a loser? But Eric knew the truth: sometimes you can only win by losing.
As it turned out, Eric was able to enter a race for which he had not trained—the 400 metres. When he won it, breaking the world record, people everywhere were ecstatic. Eric had given up victory for God and in return God gave him a greater victory than he could have ever imagined—a gold medal, a world record, and admiration for generations to come.
It was this same desire to win God’s approval that led Eric Liddell to missionary service in China, barely a year after his record-breaking run.
In September 1925, at the age of 23, he began his first job as a missionary teacher at the Anglo-Chinese College of Tiensin, the port of Peking. He lived in China, teaching and sharing his faith, for the rest of his life.
During World War II, Eric was imprisoned in a Japanese internment camp, where he spent the last two years of his life.
Even as a prisoner, Eric made a lasting impression on those around him.
“The impression Eric always made upon me,” said one internee, “was one of quiet power, something more than poise acquired from a trained mind and an assured place as one of the world’s great athletes. I felt that he was sure of God as Father, or Christ as Saviour, and the Holy Spirit as guide—as sure in an internment camp as he had been in his life in the free world outside.”
Another internee said, “My recollection of Eric Liddell was his great unselfishness, and his special care of people who had no one else to care for them.”
Early in 1945, Eric developed an illness that was to prove fatal. Resting one evening with a violent headache, he asked a friend to recite the words of his favourite hymn, “Be Still My Soul”. A few hours later he died.
A fitting epitaph for Eric’s life can be found in the Bible, where the apostle Paul states (in 2 Timothy 4:7-8):
I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing.
Eric Liddell knew that there are more important things to win in life than Olympic gold medals. He knew that the highest prize is the approval of God. And he knew that his eternal welfare is tied up with God’s approval.
Jesus once asked, “What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul?” Plainly, it is no good. Plainly, such a man looks like a winner but is in fact a loser.
Jesus said, “whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it” (Mark 8:35). It is a paradox: if you selfishly hang on to your life, eventually you will lose it in death; but if you give it over to God, he will give it back for all eternity.
Eric Liddell knew this paradox. He knew that sometimes to win, you must lose.
Few of us can, like Eric, win an Olympic medal. But all of us can, like him, win God’s approval. We can do this by trusting in his Son, Jesus Christ, who gave himself as a ransom for us all (1 Timothy 2:7). When we give our lives over to Jesus, he gives us in return new and abundant and eternal life. Now that’s winning!