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Learning from: Eric Liddell

eric liddell

Chariots of Fire is a film I can watch over and over, maybe because parts of it were filmed at my school and my Cambridge college, giving me a special affinity with it. Given my familiarity with it I was a little surprised when on our last watching my husband announced, just as Eric Liddell, winner of the  1924 Olympic gold medal for the 400 meters was completing his last dramatic run along a beach, ” He died of AIDS a couple years after that.”

“What? No he didn’t. He went to China to be a missionary. And AIDS wasn’t even around in 1926.”

“No.” Husband said, “The Actor, Ian Charleston. He died.”

 This might well have inspired a post about how a certain member of our household is incapable of suspending disbelief and just enjoying the film, for goodness sake, but as a successful marriage depends on a wife planning to use creative methods to quell her irritation from time to time, I will not go there


But it did get me thinking: What happened to the Chariots of Fire Characters and what can we learn about success from their life stories? This post, focusing on Eric Liddell, is the first in a short Chariots of Fire Series  ( The next will be in three weeks time in my next Succeed post). 

 1. Adaptability without sacrificing principle

 Eric Liddell,  was a Scottish sprinter, and  a devout Christian. He refused to run on Sundays and, when the heats of his chosen event, the 100 metres, was announced to be on a Sunday he began to train for an alternative event the 400 metres, despite his times for that race being below international standards. ( In the film this happens days before the race, in real life it was several months prior to the Olympics). He could have sacrificed his principles to his desire for gold. Or he could have sacrificed his desire for gold to his principles. Instead he held to his principles, was prepared to work hard to achieve a much harder way to get his gold and in doing so not only succeeded at his original aim but ended up the subject of a film that continues to spread his message about his faith long after his death.

 2.  Success need not be cut throat.

In a biography of Liddell a fellow competitor recalled how Eric would use a trowel to dig his starting holes in the track. He watched him offer this tool to each of his fellow runners  and when all holes were dug he shook the hand of each competitor and smiled at them. He then got on his marks, shot off and soundly beat them.

 3. He ran to the end.

A famous scene from the film is based on a race in Stoke on Trent when right at the start another runner, Gillis,  jostled him to the ground? He appeared to be out of the race but he got up and began a come back. Reaching the home straight he was a full ten yards behind Gillis, the runner who had knocked him down. But, the head went back, he dug in and won by two yards. To me that story is about the two yards. The ability to get up and still run the fastest time can be explained by Liddell simply having a much better ability than Gillis. But the beating of him by two yards rather than a dip on the line speaks to his character and his habitual striving to be the best in all areas of his life.

 4. Others may well not recognise your success if it does not meet their own definition

The film does not record that Liddell also ran the 200 meters in the Paris Olympics.

After the race the Scotsman newspaper wrote:

“Liddell failed to reproduce the strong finish by which so many of his races in this country had been won. He was well placed and had his spurt been forthcoming he would undoubtedly have won.” 

They did not report that he won a silver and was only inches away from gold.

 5. Goals have greater value if they fit into a wider life plan

Eric Lidell’s first goal in life was to practice his faith and to bring others to it. The gold medal was important to him and he trained hard for it, but ultimately he saw running as a gift from God that gave him a platform from which to talk about his faith. His goal was valuable in itself but also fitted into a larger life purpose.

 6. Your best successes may never be known.

Eric Liddell did not of course die of AIDS. I did not know, until researching this post, however, that he died of a brain tumour in a Japanese prisoner of war camp in China during World War Two. It was only years after his death that even his family found out that the Japanese had made a deal with Churchill for prisoner exchange. Liddell was on the release list but  refused an opportunity to leave the camp and instead gave his place to a pregnant woman. He died in captivity  but succeeded in living his life principles to the end.

Do you have an overall life plan / set of principles by which you are measuring your goals?

Are there areas where you have stopped striving for excellence? What can you do to be better?

7 Comments Post a comment
  1. Alison Reeves #

    This is really thought provoking Helen, I have a lot to ponder on this subject.

    November 15, 2012
  2. Gwyned Trefethen #

    Like Eric Liddell I am principaled. That is more important than specific goal, although there is always something I am striving for in my work and in my non work life. The principal that drives me is commitment. If I say I will do something, I do it. I am just as committed to pacts I make with myself, such as setting and meeting a Visioning Project goal or loosing 20 pounds and keeping them off, as I am with commitments I make to others, such as agreeing to be an active participant in this blog or finding venues to exhibit work for the fiber groups I belong to.

    November 15, 2012
  3. Chris #

    I have just had an experience of standing up for my principles. It is a long story but I entered a competition with what I knew was a losing entry but one that was consistent with my principles. I won everything that counts by entering in that way. I didn’t win the actual contest but my satisfaction in that result is great and I can feel the repercussions in my creative life.

    November 15, 2012
  4. Hilary #

    Oops, I did try and leave a comment but it disappeared into the ether.

    The film is one I remember with admiration and thoroughly enjoyed watching
    again recently. The thing that struck a chord with me was the getting
    up and carrying on (point 3). We all suffer thoughtless, even unkind remarks about our work at some time, the point is to shrug it off and carry on if that is really what our aim is.

    Aims/Goals are very good because they give us something to focus on. Principles require a strength of character that I am not sure I have. I guess I do have them where certain things are concerned but I wonder if in other areas I am prepared to be a bit flexible…giving myself a chance to re-assess my aims?

    I also wonder if having such a driving sense of having to win not by a dip at the finishing line but by a resounding 2 metres couldn’t be a bit destructive in its obsession?

    Food for thought.



    November 18, 2012

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