In 2000, Chris Harmse of South Africa was a hammer thrower who held the record on the African continent for that event. A big man in every way, he had qualified for the South African team during a pre-Olympic event in Croatia on July 15 that summer. Then he discovered that the final of the hammer throw would take place the following Sunday. A Christian, he agonized over his decision before deciding that the Lord’s Day was more important to him than throwing the hammer for his country. Sam Ramsamy, the president of the South Africa National Olympic Committee, respected his decision.
Harmse was only the second Olympian to ever withdraw from the games for religious reasons. One must go back to 1924 when the Scottish sprinter Eric Liddell dropped out of the 100 meter race in Paris because the final took place on the Sabbath.
Jonathan Edwards, England’s world record triple jumper and hope for a gold medal in Sydney, began his athletic career by refusing to take part in Sunday games. The son of a preacher, he was married to a missionary’s daughter. But he later changed his mind about this, claiming a revelation had come to him encouraging him to jump on the Lord’s Day.
Edwards says, “My relationship with Jesus and with God is fundamental to everything I do. I have made a commitment and dedication in that relationship to serve God in every area of my life including Triple Jump. The most important news, though, is the gospel of Jesus Christ. Many exciting things have happened to me in my life, but the most crucial is that my sins have been forgiven and I know God.”
Eric Liddell managed to negotiate an unheard-of switch from the 100 meter race which he had been scheduled to run to the 400 meter, for which he had not trained, later in the week. On July 11, 1924, Liddell won that race and was showered with Olympic glory.
Instead of cashing in, Liddell turned his back on fame and fortune and followed in his parents’ footsteps, becoming a missionary in China, where his most powerful contributions to God and to his fellow humans were made.
Cal Thomas points out that in our day of focus groups and leadership weakened by uncertainty of belief, Eric Liddell’s example continues to stand out. A fanatic might have demanded that others not run on Sunday either and organized a group to enact legislation to conform society to his point of view. Not Liddell. He just said he wouldn’t run. Some newspapers denounced him as a traitor to his country and king. How quickly they changed their tune when he won a gold medal. Had he yielded to temptation and compromised his beliefs, we might never have heard of him again.
The account of the race in the July 12, 1924, Times of London conveys the excitement of that day in Paris:
“Liddell had the outside berth – generally considered the worst place. … There was a perfect start, and from the first jump-off the pace looked, and was, terrific. Two men of the six fell. … But that made no difference, for there was never more than one man in the race, and it was the pace he set that fairly ran them off their legs. Sweeping round into the straight Liddell led by four or five yards, and increased his lead by a couple of yards more in the run home. No one ever looked like catching him … When the time was given out … and it was realized that, for the third time in two days, the world’s ‘record’ had been lowered, the Stadium went insane … .”
When Liddell left Edinburgh for China the following year, the number of people wanting to bid him farewell was so large that 1,000 were unable to get in. Twenty years later he was taken prisoner with other missionaries and Westerners and became one of 1,800 crowded into a Japanese camp. His personal space had shrunk to three by six feet. Before his arrest, Liddell managed to get his wife and two children to safety in Canada (Florence Liddell was pregnant at the time with their third daughter, whom Eric would not live to see). He died of a brain tumour on Feb. 21, 1945.
At the end of “Chariots of Fire,” producer David Puttnam put on the screen: “Eric Liddell, missionary, died in occupied China at the end of World War II. All of Scotland mourned.”
Press accounts of the 1980 premiere of the film in Edinburgh told of huge crowds. How fitting. The people of Scotland, who had shared their native son with China, were welcoming him back and affirming the note given to Liddell by his masseur before that 1924 race. It referred to the Biblical passage 1 Samuel 2:30: “He who honours Me, I will honour.” And so He did. And so He still does years later.
– Geoff Thomas