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What Makes Men Great? The Eric Liddell Story

In the news recently, we heard the tragic story of the Olympic athlete nicknamed “the Blade Runner.” Oscar Pistorius, who raced on prosthetic legs, was charged with shooting his girlfriend to death. If convicted, he faces life in prison.

And then of course there’s Lance Armstrong, the cyclist who, after years of denials, finally admitted to using illegal performance-enhancing drugs and was stripped of all seven of his Tour de France medals.

A lot of people admire athletes, but Pistorius and Armstrong are reminders that simply having athletic prowess does not make men heroic. So what does make men great?

Like Jesus, I'm going to answer that question with a story.

Many of you have probably seen the film "Chariots of Fire," about the Scottish runner Eric Liddell, and about how, in 1924, he surrendered an almost certain Olympic gold medal in the 100 meters because the heats took place on a Sunday. And Eric Liddell would not run on the Sabbath. He felt that that would not honor God. So instead, Eric began training for the 400 meters. That was not something he was expected to win a gold medal in. But to his country's delight, he did win the gold medal in that event.

In my new book, Seven Men and the Secret of Their Greatness, I write about seven men, among them Eric Liddell, who was willing to make this incredible sacrifice. He gave up not only the greatest prize in sports, but also the chance to bring honor to his beloved country — not to mention fame, fortune, and glory to himself.

And then he gave up the glory and wealth that goes with being an Olympic champion when he announced his intention to serve God on the mission field in China.

Eric's heroism did not stop after he won his gold medal. In the lead-up to World War II, Eric more than once put his life in danger in an effort to bring supplies to the school where he taught. On one of these journeys, he was attacked and robbed by armed thieves; on another, he was shot at.

After the war started, Eric was sent to a Japanese internment camp in China. There, he threw himself into both work and volunteer activities, teaching in the camp school and organizing softball, cricket, and tennis games for the children. Despite his growing exhaustion, and missing his family terribly, he remained cheerful for the sake of others. When he noticed that a teenager's shoes had worn out, Eric gave him his extra pair — the very shoes he had worn in the Olympic Games.

In 1945, after years in the camp, Eric began suffering terrible headaches. After he suffered a minor stoke, camp doctors believed that he had a brain tumor. On February 18, Eric finished writing one last letter to his wife and slipped into a coma. And he died that evening at the age of 43.

When the news spread around the world, not only Scotland mourned, but many other countries, as well. The Glasgow Evening News summed up the feelings of the Scottish people regarding the man who had put God before a gold medal and then spent the remainder of his life serving others. Eric Liddell, the editors said, “did [Scotland] proud every hour of his life.”

He did Scotland proud again when, 63 years after his death, China revealed that Eric had been included in a prisoner exchange. But rather than going free, he had given up his place to a pregnant woman.

For the next six Mondays leading up to Father's Day, BreakPoint will look at truly heroic men — the men I write about in my new book, Seven Men and the Secret of their Greatness. I hope you'll tune in. And I hope you'll share these stories with young people who too often admire the wrong people for the wrong reasons. They'll learn that greatness lies not in stellar achievements, but in selfless sacrifice.

Eric Metaxas is a co-host of BreakPoint Radio and a best-selling author whose biographies, children's books, and popular apologetics have been translated into more than a dozen languages.

BreakPoint commentary airs each weekday on more than one thousand outlets with an estimated listening audience of one million people. BreakPoint provides a Christian perspective on today's news and trends via radio, interactive media, and print.

Publication date: April 1, 2013

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