On the second-to-last day of coverage of the Olympics, I can finally say I liked one of NBC’s human interest spots. After the silly kung fu spot, the offensive Chinese-food-is-weird spot, etc. I wasn’t expecting much. (Actually, either I’ve been missing them somehow or NBC just hasn’t been airing any more of the Mary Carillo spots, because they seem to have become less regular as the coverage has gone on.)
This human interest spot was on Eric Liddell. He was born in China in 1902 to Scottish missionary parents. He would die in China in 1945. In between, however, he became one of Scotland’s most famous athletes of all time. In the 1924 Olympics, Liddell refused to run in the 100m heats because they were held on a Sunday, violating the Sabbath. By this choice, he disqualified himself from his best race. He chose, instead, to run the 400m, where he was not considered a major contender.
That 400m race has become something of a legend. Liddell took off at a sprinter’s pace (in a non-sprint race) and everyone expected that he would run out of steam half way through. Instead, he threw his head back the last 100m and not only did not run out of steam, he accelerated. Liddell won the gold. People said that kind of run could only be a gift from God.
If this story line sounds familiar, you’ve probably seen “Chariots of Fire.”
After finishing his studies, Liddell followed his parents’ footsteps and returned to China to serve as a missionary. As Japanese invasion loomed, Liddell sent his pregnant wife and his two daughters to Canada, to stay with his wife’s family. Liddell was eventually imprisioned with other foreign missionaries in a Japanese internment camp, where he died of a brain tumor. To the end, however, he maintained his focus. The NBC spot included interviews with people who had, as children, been in that internment camp with Liddell. “Uncle” Eric had encouraged them to maintain their faith, had done his best to maintain some kind of normalcy and childhood for the missionaries’ children in the worst of circumstances, and had taught them by his example to pray for their enemies. Only five months after his death, the camp was liberated by American troops.
Eric Liddell has been honored by a memorial in China, a truly rare thing in a country not fond of foreigners, to put it mildly. Having been born in China, he is sometimes listed as the first Chinese Olympian. For his incredible moral courage, he is still remembered in Scotland and was memorialized in the movie “Chariots of Fire” (with some Hollywood-induced inaccuracies, but mostly correct). (go see the Wikipedia article for more info: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eric_Liddell )
At the Academy, on days when we were too stressed by classes or had thoroughly nitpicked the professional topic of the week, the discussion at lunch usually became a little lighter. One week, someone asked the plebes (aka freshman at normal universities) what their favorite movies were. I forget what the other two plebes said (something relatively forgettable and recent), but the last one told us that “Chariots of Fire” was his favorite movie. Mind you, this plebe was an atheist.
“Why is that your favorite?” we asked, confused.
The atheist plebe talked about Liddell’s sticking to his convictions in spite of personal losses, his moral courage, etc.
“Um… you did read the postscript at the end of the movie? About how he died in China as a Christian missionary? As an atheist, how do you reconcile admiration for Liddell with the fact that his faith is what fueled those attributes you admire? Or that his faith led him to his death?”
He didn’t really have an answer for that, but, obviously, Liddell’s story had really impressed him.
Even Mary Carillo, after NBC had so NOT impressed with its human interest stories so far, came up with a good summary in the live part after the recorded spot: “We’ve met tons of Olympians over the years who wanted to do great and be great. Liddell wanted to be good and do good.”
I have to admit: NBC did a good job on this spot. I just wish they had done a better job on the spots that were actually about China directly.
But they reminded us that truly great Olympians aren’t just great on the field or in the pool… they are great in life. It’s a good note to go out on for the Olympics.