Chapter 21: Chariots of Fire
from the 1981 film “Chariots of Fire”, by Vangelis
posted at 01:10, 10 April 2019
“I’m sorry?” said the old man opposite Eric Liddell, his face rigid with barely contained fury.
“Unfortunately my mind is made up, Lord Cadogan. I would run if it was any other day, but alas, I cannot run in the heats if it is to be held on the 6th.”
“But for what reason, dear boy, what reason?” Lord Cadogan rose to his feet.
“You see what I have to deal with, Gerald,” sighed the man next to him, wiping his face. “I’ve told Eric time and time again that this is an honour, to be competing for King and country, but he continues to deny us the pleasure of agreeing.”
“Your lordship, I absolutely mean no disrespect to either of those two parties,” said Eric, straightening up even further. His hands clenched behind the round cap he had been wearing before he walked in. “But surely you understand my position, as a man of God and whose highest calling is the church.”
“You ask us to understand your position, and yet you do not seem to want to understand ours,” Cadogan replied, his voice clipped, his body stiff, his eyes still staring at Eric. “Are you so obstinate, Liddell, that you cannot be reasonable —”
“Calm down, Gerald,” cut in Lord Birkenhead, now wiping his hands. “The fact is, Lord Cadogan and I are appealing to your reason and your love of our country — the love of our King.” Eric looked down at his shoelaces. They were hastily done — a result of being called from the Stade Olympique at short notice. “Come now, Liddell. What could please God more than fulfilling your duty to Great Britain — to the greatest land that God has created?” His words had softened, but Eric felt that beneath them there was menace, and a tinge of slight unease. What would happen when he disappointed the two of them again?
A click at the door, which swung open immediately. Eric lifted his eyes, and his heart dropped: in front of him was none other than the Prince of Wales, with the Duke of Sutherland just behind, gazing at him with an amused smile. He knew very well what they were there to do. His task had just become infinitely harder.
The Prince extended his hand. “Mr. Liddell. My friends tell me that you have been extremely headstrong in resisting their calls for you to run in Sunday’s heats.” Eric shook it very cautiously. The Prince raised his eyebrows. “I see it’s true, then.”
“Aye, your highness,” said Eric. He allowed himself a wry smile. “Unfortunately.”
“Will you not even give me the pleasure of seeing you run, Liddell? They say that you’re best in the field.”
“With all due respect, your highness, if you have heard of my running skills, then you have heard of my faith, and you know that the Lord asks that we keep the Sabbath. I do love my country — and God willing, I shall compete in some other event for the glory of Britain. But the Lord help me, I cannot sacrifice all that for…” Words failed him — the task was impossible.
“For what, Liddell?”
“Well, for earthly glory.”
“Don’t be impertinent, Liddell,” said Lord Cadogan, rounding on him, his eyes now building into condemnation.
“My dear Gerald,” the Duke of Sutherland butted in for the first time. “Give the man some space. He is determined, there’s no way we can persuade him. I’m sure we can find some other person who is adept at running like Eric is?” He turned to Lord Birkenhead. “Fred, if Liddell here is to pull out, can we ask somebody to fill in for him?”
“That’s… very short notice, George, but then again I think that can be arranged. David tells me that Harold Abrahams has been training with this man Mussabini on his short sprints… perhaps he can help.”
“And what about Eric here?”
Birkenhead looked over at Eric. “We’ll check the schedule. Perhaps the 400 metres. We’ll check with Abrahams, see if he agrees first.”
A silence descended upon the room. Lord Cadogan was still looking coldly at Eric, who shifted his feet uncomfortably.
“That will be all, Liddell,” he said at last.
A month later, Eric Liddell sat in the changing rooms of the Stade Olympique, watching the people opposite him change into their running shorts. The room was deathly quiet, and nobody spoke to one another as they did their warm-ups. Eric gazed at the light streaming through the windows high up close to the ceiling, and he imagined the sound of the crowd in the stands above him. His refusal to the British Committee — even to a member of the Royal Family — had spread amongst the team and like wildfire across Paris and the Channel.
He flashed back to the sermon he had given at the Parisian Church of Scotland, as the roar of the crowd cheered on Harold over in Colombes. “They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary.” It was difficult, he thought, to really know what pleased the Lord. For some moments after he had exited the room, after he had told Harold that the entire British Olympic Committee and the Prince of Wales were waiting for him inside, he had wavered, ever so slightly. Perhaps he should have given them room to manoeuvre, perhaps he should have gradually worked his way towards a rapprochement. Would he have given Harold less trouble if he had accepted, run the short race as everyone back in Scotland expected him to?
The call sounded, and the athletes started filing out. Nobody was glancing at one another, each caught in their own silent tortures. Eric rose, studying the faces of all the runners. Then: a tap on his shoulder. Douglas Lowe stood there, a small smile on his face.
“We want you to have this,” said Douglas, pushing a piece of paper into his hand. “Good luck in the race.” For a moment he looked like he would have said more, but then he nodded and disappeared back upstairs.
Eric walked out onto the track, the glare of the July sun temporarily blinding him. Was it just him, or did the Sun look a little brighter today? He paused on his track, and stood behind the starting line. And it was at that moment that he looked at the paper.
“It is written in the Book of Life, ‘Those who honour Me, I will honour.’ Good luck in the race.”
Eric looked up at the track, curving away from him, stretching into infinity. Everyone was gearing up, ready for their sprint around. He heard the American coach on the sidelines, muttering to his team, glancing in his direction every now and then. But that did not matter now. He had done his best, he had waited upon the Lord. And now — well, it was in the hands of the Lord, to have Him give strength to Eric. Somewhere on the field, he heard the gun fire, and he ran.
Up in the stands, Jennie Liddell looked at her brother as he flew down the track. The Americans were trying their hardest to keep pace with him, wary of this canny Scotsman who was now already giving it all he’d got. Any second now he would tire. Any moment now, he would flag, and his arrogant faith in God would serve him no more.
“Great Scott, Jennie, he doesn’t seem to be very safe! He’s way ahead of all the others… how can he possibly keep that up?” Jennie heard her husband cry out. He strained his eyes towards the miniscule figure of Eric, bouncing down the track, his competitors breathing down his neck.
Jennie turned to look at him and simply shrugged. “His head’s not back yet,” she breathed, looking him square in the eyes. And at that moment, Eric Liddell lifted his eyes up to the heavens. The sunlight streamed down upon him, coursed through his veins. He flung his arms, he pumped his legs, and within seconds he was sailing clear of his competition, like a man buoyed on by the wind.
Before he knew it, he was crossing the line. The roar of the crowd ascended into a thunder: the canny little Scotsman had done it, he had proved almost everyone in the crowd wrong: the results, now being blared over the loudspeakers and lost in a wave of noise, would eventually show Eric the winner by almost a second; the shouts of disbelief now turned into astonishment and surprise would ensure that his faith lived on for centuries to come.
But on that sunny Friday afternoon in Paris, even as he was hoisted onto the shoulders of his teammates all shouting in exhilaration, Eric Liddell did not hear the adulation of the crowd. Even as they called his name, he could only feel the pleasure of God shining down upon Him, and that faith had once again come through. Closing his eyes for a moment while everyone cheered, he breathed his thanks to the one above, who had made it all possible.
Thanks, I’m fine. For now. Will update you if anything goes wrong.