“I believe God made me for a purpose. But he also made me fast,” Eric Liddell wrote in a letter to his sister Jenny before competing as a sprinter for Great Britain in the 1924 Summer Olympics.
The 1981 film Chariots of Fire (for my money, the best sports movie ever made) follows the lives of the devoutly Christian Liddell and his Jewish teammate Harold Abrahams at the Paris Games, and actor Ian Charleson, playing Liddell, intones these lines over the film’s sublime final race scene.
Liddell wins the gold medal in the 400 meters, a race that the 100-meter specialist had never run at an international competition. The son of Scottish missionaries, Liddell refused to compete in the 100 meters, which was won by his friend Abrahams, because the opening heats had been scheduled for a Sunday.
Liddell’s decision to remember the Sabbath and forgo the 100-meter competition transformed this national hero into a role model for Christians around the world. This man of remarkable talents was willing to pass up his best shot at athletic glory for the opportunity to properly honor his Lord and Savior.
Certainly, many Christians had competed in the previous modern Olympiads, but none took such a public or principled stand for his faith. Following his Olympic triumph, Liddell returned to China, where he had been born during his parents’ mission in the country. He spent much of the rest of his life in China, serving the poor and teaching the gospel.
During World War II—the last time the Olympics were called off—Liddell was taken prisoner by Japanese forces and devoted the last two years of his life to ministering to his fellow inmates at the Weixian Internment Camp in Shandong Province. He died just a few months short of the camp’s liberation by American forces.
Liddell continues to be remembered by Christians as a modern-day martyr. And nearly a century after he won the gold, his witness has empowered subsequent generations of faithful Olympians to speak out about a purpose beyond the podium.
As millions of fans around the world tune in to the Tokyo Olympics, they aren’t just watching for record breakers and feats of strength. They want to hear stories with echoes of Liddell, people whose faith makes them bolder competitors, caring teammates, and humble victors.
Competing on the highest levels of a sport and on an international stage takes almost supernatural dedication. Christian faith can be a source of hope and inspiration for athletes who feel like the odds are against them.
In my own childhood, I found the story of Dan Jansen, who spoke frequently and openly of his faith, particularly striking. In 1988, the World Champion speed skater learned the morning before competing for Team USA at the winter games in Calgary that his sister had died of leukemia. Jansen, a favorite in both the 500-meter and 1000-meter sprints, fell in both races. Four years later, he again failed to medal despite his world-class status. Finally at the 1994 Lillehammer Winter Olympics, Jansen persevered and won a gold medal in the 1000 meters.
Our draw to Christians in sports is not specific to Olympic athletes, as the mass appeal of figures such as David Robinson, Tim Tebow, and George Foreman has demonstrated over the years. But Olympians find themselves on a unique stage—representing their country before the rest of the world. As outspoken Christians, they, too, become global representatives of the faith.
Today’s Olympic lineup contains Christian athletes whose faith shapes how they compete and how they live their lives outside the games.
American sprinter Allyson Felix, a six-time gold medalist and three-time silver medalist, says her Christian faith inspires her to put on sports clinics for children in the US and abroad, working as a State Department envoy. Jamaica’s Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, a six-time medalist who will be competing in her fourth Olympics in the 100 and 200 meters, has used sports as a ministry and developed a large social media following based on both her prowess on the track and her consistently positive, gospel-informed message.
Why do Christian athletes, both past and present, serve as such a source of inspiration for faithful fans? I spoke with a friend of mine the other day about this very question. He responded with a story from his youth about athletes not on the international stage but on a decidedly local one. He remembered the time a dozen or so players from the local college football team visited with his church’s youth group right after a game.
None of these players made it to the National Football League, but that made them no less inspiring to the youth to whom they witnessed. The standout of the evening was the team’s star running back.
“I had watched him explode through holes, shed tacklers, and rush for long touchdowns on several Saturday afternoons,” my friend said. “His reputation made me excited to hear him talk, but what struck me was his size and strength and his utter kindness and humility. He had the largest smile and conveyed genuine concern and goodwill for each person in the audience. I don’t remember a word he said, but I remember his presence—strong, kind, compassionate, and winsome. Utterly Christlike.”
This juxtaposition is part of why we find Christian athletes so compelling. We see the fire and fury they display in competition set against their ability to be good sports between the lines and exemplars of the Christian life outside the lines. It’s a version of being in the world but not of it. They demonstrate the control and confidence necessary to compete as athletes while displaying the magnanimity of true disciples.
That’s why we look to history and to our own times for examples of what was once known as Muscular Christianity. The term took off particularly in the British Commonwealth. (I’ve joked to more than a few friends that share my enthusiasm for Chariots of Fire that the picture should have actually been called Muscular Christianity: The Movie.) Long before Liddell took his stand, British intellectuals such as Thomas Hughes and Charles Kingsley articulated a vision of sports as a ministry.
To them, sports was an institution that cultivated the Christian virtues of discipline and self-sacrifice. Echoes of Hughes’s 1857 novel Tom Brown’s School Days can be heard in every coach who speaks to the character-revealing benefits of sports or in every player who speaks of the brotherhood or sisterhood that develops among teammates.
In the greatest Olympic triumphs, we celebrate that with God all things are possible. Or as Eric Liddell put it, “in the dust of defeat as well as the laurels of victory, there is glory to be found if one has done his best.”
Clayton Trutor teaches at Norwich University in Northfield, Vermont, and is the author of Loserville: How Professional Sports Remade Atlanta—and How Atlanta Remade Professional Sports, which is being published by the University of Nebraska Press.