Monday, August 25, 2008
The People’s Republic of China has successfully used the Beijing Olympics to demonstrate to the world that they are an economic and political super-power. Since a large part of my heart is in China, and I love the Chinese people for Jesus’ sake, I’ve been proud to see the quality of their planning and implementation of even the tiniest details throughout the games. They enlisted and trained over 70,000 official Olympic volunteers, which is a massive accomplishment in itself! I think they have been successful in accomplishing their desire to show China to world.
In contrast, Adolph Hitler failed miserably in his attempt to use the 1936 Berlin Olympics as a platform to promote Nazism and Arian superiority. The Olympics were held on the verge of World War II, with the city and stadium covered with red and black swastikas flying everywhere. German soldiers goose-stepped and saluted the ever-present, posturing Hitler.
By the time the Olympics were over, Jesse Owen, an African-American son of an Alabama sharecropper had crushed Hilter’s myth of racial superiority. He won five gold medals. In addition, he humiliated Hilter through a brief but unique friendship with a Nazi poster boy. More on that in a moment.
Jesse Owens was born James Cleveland Owens in Oakville, Alabama on September 12, 1913. At the age of nine, his family moved to Cleveland. When a new teacher asked his name, he answered “J.C.” in his quiet southern drawl. The teacher misunderstood and called him “Jesse.” He was too shy to correct her, so he was Jesse from then on.
After a stellar track career at Ohio State, Owens arrived at the Berlin Olympics facing intense opposition because of his skin color. In Germany, Nazis portrayed negroes as inferior and ridiculed the U.S.A. for relying on what they called “black auxiliaries.” One German official even criticized the U.S. for allowing “non-humans, like Owens and other Negro athletes” to compete.
Owens, a quiet, humble man, took it all with dignity. During the trials for the long-jump, Owens came dangerously close to not qualifying. He fouled on his first two jumps, and was stunned when officials counted a practice run down the runway as one of his attempts. He had only one jump left to qualify for the finals. It was at this point that Luz Long, a tall, blue-eyed, blonde German long jumper stepped in and introduced himself to Owens. Long was Germany’s best and was expected to win the gold, with Owens being his stiffest competition. Luz Long suggested that Owens make a mark several inches short of the takeoff board and jump from there to be safe. Owens took his advice and easily qualified. He went on to win the gold medal in the long jump and Luz Long took the silver. Long was the first to embrace Owens and congratulate him on his win. Long looked the part of the model Nazi, but he wasn’t.
Later Owens would comment: “It took a lot of courage for him to befriend me in front of Hitler. You can melt down all the medals and cups I have and they wouldn't be a plating on the 24-karat friendship I felt for Luz Long at that moment. Hitler must have gone crazy watching us embrace. The sad part of the story is I never saw Long again. He was killed in World War II.”
Owens returned to America as a hero, but he still wasn’t exempt from the racial discrimination that existed in his home country. He received a ticker-tape parade through the streets of New York City, and there was a reception held in his honor at the top of the Waldorf Astoria Hotel. However, in a sad ironic twist to his story, this “hero” was forced to ride the freight elevator to attend his own reception that evening.
Lucrative sports endorsements were rare during the Depression and Owens struggled to have enough money to eat. He resorted to participating in events like racing against horses and dogs. He would later say, “People said it was degrading for an Olympic champion to run against a horse, but was I supposed to do? I had four gold medals, but you can’t eat four gold medals.”
It wasn’t until the 1950’s that Owens attained financial security by becoming a public speaker for corporations and public relations events. Owens died at the age of 66 in Tucson, Arizona in 1980.
His success in the 1936 Olympics far surpassed the impact of simply winning a race or jumping the farthest. His masterful performance was a political and racial statement that was heard around the world. Finally, ten years after his death in 1990, our country gave Jesse Owens a fitting reward for what he really accomplished. President George H. Bush posthumously awarded Owens the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian award in America, calling his accomplishments, “an unrivaled athletic triumph, but more than that, a triumph for all humanity.”
This is a great reminder to me that as followers of Jesus Christ, our greatest reward will be given to us posthumously - when the nail-scarred Hands pass out the crowns of righteousness at the Bema - but we'll be more alive than ever before as we cast our crowns at His feet!
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Wednesday, August 13, 2008
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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