Author: Russell Wilcox Ramsey is an American athlete, writer, and a national security educator. He was decorated with the Bronze Star and is a National Record Holder in swimming (men, 55-59 age group). In addition to many books on national security, he has written several books related to Christian athletes and the Olympics, including God’s Joyful Runner: The Story of Eric Liddell (1987), the novel A Lady, A Peacemaker (1988), and the Christian living book From Mount Olympus to Calvary (2014).
Subject: Eric Liddell (1902-1945) was an Olympic Gold Medalist (400m, 1924) and a missionary in Northern China, from 1925 until he was put into a Japanese internment camp, where he later died. He was famously (although somewhat sensationally) portrayed in the film Chariots of Fire, which won Best Picture for 1982.
This story really starts where Chariots of Fire ends: with Liddell’s missionary call. Eric Liddell not only overcame obstacles at the 1924 Olympics; he served the people of China dauntlessly in the 1930s and on into World War II, giving up any shot at an Olympic return. He served for two decades in a rural and poor area of Hebei Province, in northern China, and stayed there even after the United Kingdom advised its citizens to leave in 1941. Somewhat over against the strong sacred-secular divide that may result from misinterpreting the 1982 film, Liddell did also compete in athletics during his missionary service, but he only did so in East Asia, and in ways that did not interfere with his other duties.
Eventually, after several close calls, Liddell was placed in an internment camp in 1943, on a school compound, and he spent the last two years of his life there. He died suddenly of a brain tumor in 1945, at the age of 43, but with much more to show for his life than any gold medal could offer: many lives changed for God. He took the same physical determination and sense of duty to the mission field, and bore it without complaint, cheerful yet self-effacing, devout but without pretense.
I was impressed, as I read this book, that Liddell’s physical prowess served him well in the mission field. He was in rural China, without much access to modern transportation methods. Ramsey tells several anecdotes which show what an asset his physical endurance was in serving the poor on the mission field. I remember in particular that Liddell had to carry an injured man by wheelbarrow for many miles.
There were two athletic anecdotes in this book that literally made my jaw drop:
The first occurs in the film Chariots of Fire. During a race (I believe it was only 400m, but I am not able to verify), Liddell was knocked to the ground. Not only did he get back up and keep running, he won the race. (Movie clip here.)
The second is not mentioned in the film because it occurs after Liddell left for the mission field. Liddell did not give up running forever when he left Scotland—in fact, he competed in the Asian Games in Japan while he was living in China. However, he had a steamer to catch so that he could teach Sunday school the next day. Having placed at the games, he stood and saluted while they played through British national anthem, and then the French national anthem. Finally, he said his goodbyes and ran out of the stadium. Arriving at the pier, the ferry had just cast off. Not willing to be stuck in Japan two more days, Liddell reared back, got a running start, and jumped onto the ship as it was departing the pier.
God’s Joyful Runner is a great introduction to Eric Liddell’s life and has much more than can be summarized in a brief article like this. But there are some aspects of Liddell’s life that it doesn’t tell us much about. It doesn’t say much, for instance, about Liddell’s writings. If readers want greater detail, though, I believe they could find that in David McCasland’s longer book, Eric Liddell: Pure Gold.