Wednesday, August 13, 2008
WHO WAS CHINA'S FIRST OLYMPIC HERO?
Here are a few hints:
(1) He was born and died in China.
(2) He won an Olympic gold medal in the 400 meter.
(3) When he died his body was placed in the Masuoleum of Martyrs in Shijiazhuang, China.
If you guessed Eric Liddell, you’re right. He was China’s first Olympic hero.
With so much attention being directed at Beijing during the 29th Olympiad, we might forget that China has only recently come to the Olympic stage. They didn’t compete in any summer Olympics until the 1984 games in Los Angeles. The precision and pageantry of the Opening Ceremony is symbolic of the quantum leap that China has made over the past twenty years!
But China has had an Olympic Hero since the 1924 games. The first Olympic gold medalist to be born and die in China was Eric Liddell. Although he competed for Scotland, he spent most of his life in China and China has claimed him as their first Olympic hero in their earliest Olympic literature.
Eric Liddell (rhymes with “fiddle”) was born on January 16, 1904 in Tianjin, the child of Scottish missionaries. He later attended school in Scotland where he excelled in rugby and track. He qualified for several events, including the 100 meter dash, in the 1924 Olympics in Paris. Contrary to the movie, Chariots of Fire, Liddell knew months in advance that the qualifying heat for the 100 meter would be run on a Sunday. Because of his personal convictions against competing on the Lord’s Day, he arrived in Paris knowing he wouldn’t run on that Sunday. He had also been selected to run in the 4x100 meter relay and the 4x400 relay, both of which were run on Sunday as well. His decision could have cost him three gold medals – not just one. But obviously, Eric was interested in another better kind of gold.
There was great pressure from friends and other athletes for Eric to compromise his convictions. The Prince of Wales personally begged Eric to reconsider and run on Sunday, but Eric politely refused the Prince because of his commitment to his King.
As the starting gun sounded that Sunday morning for the 100 meter qualifying heat, Eric was giving his testimony at a church in Paris not far from the Olympic stadium.
Eric captured an unexpected bronze medal in the 200 meter, and worked his way through the qualifying heats for the 400. His qualifying times were much slower than the best runners, and few people expected him to even win a medal in the finals.
On the day of the race as Liddell prepared to position himself in the starting blocks, an American trainer slipped a piece of paper in his hands with a quotation from 1 Samuel 2:20, “Those who honor me, I will honor.”
Eric exploded out of the blocks with that paper crushed in his fist as if it was a 100 meter sprint. Observers expected him to fade, but he threw his head back and ran. He had commented to his sister once, “When I run, I feel God’s pleasure.”
Liddell's unorthodox running style as portrayed in the movie, with his head back and his mouth wide open, is said to be historically accurate. At an athletics championship in Glasgow, a visitor was watching the 440 yard final in which Liddell was a long way from the leaders at the start of the last lap (of a 220 yard track). He remarked to a Glasgow native that Liddell would be hard put to win the race. The Glaswegian native merely replied, “His head's no' back yet.” Liddell then threw his head back and with mouth wide open caught and passed his opponents to win the race.
In a similar fashion, Eric crossed the finish line with his head held back, breaking the tape five meters ahead of the second place runner. He had won the gold medal in 47.6 seconds, setting a new world record!
THE REST/BEST OF THE STORY
After winning the gold medal, Eric Liddell was a celebrity and could have chosen any job he wanted back in Scotland. Instead, he chose to return to China, the land of his birth, and share the good news of God’s love with the Chinese people. He spent several years teaching at a college for Chinese students.
In 1943 when the Japanese occupied China, Liddell was imprisoned in the Weifang Interment Camp. For the next two years he worked in terrible conditions to maintain the morale of the other prisoners.
Winston Churchill arranged a prisoner exchange with the Japanese and because Liddell was a famous athlete, he was on the list to be liberated. However, at the last minute, Eric arranged for a pregnant woman to take his place and he chose to remain in the prison camp.
The prisoners were given enough food and water to barely keep them alive, and on February 21, 1945, malnourished and sick, our Olympic champion died … and crossed the FINISH LINE with his head held back in victory. He captured the real gold!
In 1991, a memorial plaque was placed at the site of Eric Liddell’s death in Weifang. The inscription is taken from a simple verse in Isaiah that says, “They shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run and not be weary.”
So in the midst of this Olympic competition, in which the talented Chinese athletes will certainly win many medals, perhaps even more than the U.S., let’s don’t forget CHINA’S FIRST OLYMPIC HERO.
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