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Eric Liddell, Paralympians & Great Olympic Values

Mal Fletcher
Posted 27 July 2012
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There are probably few things that stir the human soul like the story of a winner against seemingly insurmountable odds.

During the 2004 Paralympics in Athens, I watched a spectacle on TV that I think will stay with me for the rest of my days.

All the able-bodied – or perhaps we should just say, less-physically-challenged – competitors had gone home. The hype and hoopla were dying down and a smaller but still enthusiastic crowd had remained to watch the competition between physically challenged athletes from around the world.

I watched in amazement as one young Chinese man, probably no more than a teenager, surged quite early to the front of the field. He stretched his lead lap by lap until he was entire body-lengths ahead of his nearest rival.

I was stunned as he touched the pad to register first place; stunned first by the scale of his victory and then by the fact that he had hit the pad with the top of his head.

This young man had no arms. He was the only competitor in the race who had no arms. Somehow, almost miraculously it seemed, he had kicked and breathed, kicked and breathed his way to victory.

All of the racers that day deserved plaudits – as do all Paralympians – but this man’s win was made all the more remarkable because of his particular disability.

I found myself choking on emotion and thinking, almost aloud. ‘Whatever that boy has, I want some of it.’

Sadly, I don’t remember the name of the swimmer, nor do I recall the length of his race. What I won’t forget is the quality of his determination and the sheer improbability of his feat.

I will always remember, too, the expression joy on his face after the win and the sheer delight he gave to those of us who saw him race.

This surely is what the entire Olympic tournament is really about; not the razzmatazz of the opening or closing ceremonies, as uplifting as they may be, or the glorious pictures of the host city, beamed in an instant to an audience of billions.

The twin Olympic pageants – and let’s not forget there are two – should be all about the human element.

The Games provide for us, on a massive scale, that rarest of opportunities: a chance to celebrate the pursuit of noble goals and to remember the sacrifice required of those who would achieve their true potential, in any walk of life.

Somewhere within each of us, it seems, there is a heroism drive which causes us to aspire to becoming more than we are – and, perhaps, being celebrated by others in the process. There are moments in our lives when, despite the everyday challenges we face, we are reminded of those latent dreams and the hopes we’ve pushed aside, and encouraged to reach for more.

The twin Olympic and Paralympic pageants can serve to do just that, if we can look past the copyrighted logos, corporate sponsorships and political talk of economic benefits.

The opening celebration – which is arguably as much a show as a ceremony today – will doubtless dazzle us with its artistry and sheer scale.

At the same time, across town, the walls of the Palace of Westminster will be alight with projected images of great Olympians past and present.

In a sense, this represents a more fitting opening to the Games. It is in these faces and forms that we see the enormous effort, focus, joy and pain that, added to natural talent, forms part of every competitor’s journey to potential glory.

In ultimate defeat or victory, every competitor has doggedly – or romantically – pursued a long-held dream and has paid a high price to even get near to it.

Among the pictures thrown onto the wall of the Parliament complex will no doubt be that of Eric Liddell, champion of the 1924 Paris Olympics.

Liddell, driven not just by a desire to compete but by a potent religious faith, refused to compete in the heat for his designated race, the 100 metres, because it was to be run on a Sunday.

The schedule was published months before the Games and Liddell made his decision early. He switched to training for the 400 metres, in which his best time was modest by international standards.

Enormous pressure was brought to bear on this young Scot in the hope that he might if not sacrifice his principles, at least bend his own rules to compete in a race he was the firm favourite to win. He would not.

On the day, he broke with convention by treating what was considered a middle distance race as one long sprint. He was challenged all the way down the home straight but held on to win, breaking the existing Olympic and world records with a time of 47.6 seconds. The record stood for 12 years.

A few days earlier, he had competed in the 200 metres race and won the bronze medal. Scotland and the entire UK young Eric firmly to their hearts.

Years later, after a long career as a missionary to China, he died in a Japanese POW camp, just five months before liberation. He died on 21 February 1945, five months before liberation and was greatly mourned in Scotland as well as in parts of China.

Before his death, he worked to teach science to the children in the camp and to care for the elderly.

Because he was born in China – the son of missionaries – and died there, some of China Olympic literature lists Liddell as China's first Olympic champion.

In the lead up to the 2008 Beijing Games, Chinese authorities revealed that Liddell had refused an opportunity to leave the internment camp, choosing instead gave his place to a pregnant woman as part of a Japanese prisoner exchange with Britain.

Public voting for the first inductees to the Scottish Sports Hall of Fame in 2002 revealed that Eric Liddell was the most popular athlete Scotland has produced.

Yet his story may have been lost to most of the rest of us had it not been told afresh in the movie Chariots of Fire, now digitised for a new cinema audience and running (no pun intended) as a London stage show.

It was not the movie that made Eric Liddell, however. It was the courage of his human spirit, the supreme focus on something bigger and better than himself.

In the glamour of Olympic extravaganzas, let’s not forget that this is what the modern Games were intended to commemorate and elevate.

Baron Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the modern Games, famously said that, ‘The important thing in the Olympic Games is not winning but taking part.’ He would have been proud of Eric Liddell, as he would of the Paralympic young swimmer from China.

In this austerity era, ethics professors, religious leaders, heads of royal commissions and parliamentary inquiries and even leading politicians are calling for a redefinition of community values. They urge that we pursue the common good over individual profit.

The success of this Olympics should be measured by more than the money they make or the splash in the world’s media. In spite of their links with profit motives and the hubristic side of nationalism, the Games still have the power to show us how challenges can be met and far-off dreams made a little more real.

Let’s see if we can’t look past the vast Olympic machine and so on, to focus on the very human stories of remarkable men and women.

What’s your view?

Do we focus enough on the human stories at the Olympics?



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