Eric's decision not to run on a Sunday

In his book ‘Running the Race’, John W Keddie describes, in chapter 7 the period during which Eric decided that he would not run on the Sabbath at the Olympics. John writes:

There is no doubt that Eric Liddell was pencilled in as a prospect for at least the 100 and 200 metres, and probably also for both relay races in Paris. However, the programme of the games was publicized towards the end of 1923 (in point of fact it would have been available from 1921). The following was the scheduling of the various events in which Eric might have been expected to take part, with the Sundays highlighted:

Event Round Day Date
100 metres 1st / 2nd rounds Sunday 6 July
100 metres Semi – finals / Final Monday 7 July
200 metres 1st / 2nd rounds Tuesday 8 July
200 metres Semi – finals / Final Wednesday 9 July
400 metres 1st / 2nd rounds Thursday 10 July
400 metres Semi – finals / Final Friday 11 July
4 x 100 metres 1stround Saturday 12 July
4 x 100 metres Semi – finals / Final Sunday 13 July
4 x 400 metres 1st round Saturday 12 July
4 x 400 metres Final Sunday

13 July

When Eric became aware of this he made it perfectly clear that he would take no part in any events scheduled for the Lord’s day, the Christian Sabbath. As far as he was concerned, that was a day of rest and worship in terms of the Fourth Commandment. It was, for him, not a day for recreation or work, apart from such works as were of necessity or mercy. The theology of the Lord’s day as Christian Sabbath to which Eric Liddell subscribed held that the Sabbath principle was preserved though the day was changed from the seventh day of the week to the first day of the week. Most evangelical Christians held that the change of day was necessitated by three things: first, commemoration of the resurrection of Christ on the first day of the week; second, the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost on the first day of the week, seven weeks after the resurrection; and, third, New Testament precedents. The terms ‘Lord’s day’ to describe the Christian Sabbath derives from Revelation 1;10. Naturally, the argument that the Sabbath principle continued rested on the principle that the Ten Commandments contained permanent spiritual and moral precepts which in their very nature could not be abrogated.

At any rate, Eric made his position clear – he would not run in any events scheduled for a Sunday. As his friend D P Thomson put it later, ‘That decision there was no hope of changing. It was based on principles from which he never deviated a hair’s breadth. Even in the Weihsien Internment Camp, where he was in charge of all sports and athletics, he refused to be responsible for planning Sunday sports.’

There has been a debate about whether or not the British Olympic authorities appealed to the International Olympic Committee to reschedule some events. It was clear that Eric, for one, would also not be available for either the 4 x 100metres or 4 x 400 metres relay races, heats or finals of which were also scheduled for Sundays. This would seriously affect Great Britain’s prospects, and might make the difference in the colours of medals won.

A personal note which I received from David A Jamieson contained the following statements: ‘It was suggested to Liddell that the Continental Sabbath finished at midday; he replied that “His Sunday lasted all day”! Efforts were made by the British Olympic Council to persuade the Olympic Committee in Paris but they were of no avail’. It seems the British Olympic Council towards the end of 1923 did appeal to the International Olympic Committee that ‘Athletes who object to running or taking part in any Game on Sunday, be given a chance to have their race or event arranged on another day.’ In a reply dated 22 January 1924, the IOC indicated that they were not prepared to ask any other committee, or the host country, to make such changes at that point. This may not have been attempted only on behalf of Eric Liddell, but the strong likelihood is that it was the case of Eric Liddell that was the motivation for the approach.

There is irony in this matter of Eric Liddell’s refusal to run in the events scheduled for Sundays. His widow Florence later recalled that ‘Eric always said that the great thing for him was that when he stood by his principles and refused to run in the 100 metres, he found that the 400 metres was really his race. He said he would never have known that otherwise. He would never have dreamed of trying the 400 at the Olympics.’ In order to make preparation to ‘run the distance’ over 400 metres, Eric forsook rugby in the winter of 1923 -24. He also had his university work to do as he entered his finals year. At the very least, avoiding rugby meant that he would not run the threat of injury, always present in that game. No, he would quietly prepare for the Olympic 400 metres, under the watchful eye of Tom McKerchar.

Running the Race – Eric Liddell, Olympic Champion and Missionary.

ISBN 13 978 0 85234 780 5

This material is copyright John W Keddie and used with his permission.

Footnote:  Other Scottish sports people have followed suit over the years – the most notable example being current Scotland rugby union player Euan Murray.