The Ultimate Race
By Scott Harrup
July 29, 2012
What do a missionary to China, a decorated World War II prisoner of war, and a former U.S. House of Representatives member from Kansas’ 2nd Congressional District have in common? Each was one of the fastest human beings of his day, and each participated in the Olympic Games.
Born to Scottish missionary parents in China in 1902, Eric Liddell grew up in a boarding school in London, only rarely seeing his mother and father. Following his studies at the University of Edinburgh he would return to China as a missionary himself, but not before winning a gold medal in the 400 meters and a bronze in the 200 meters at the 1924 Paris Olympics. Liddell’s 400-meter victory set a world record at 47.6 seconds.
Liddell’s personal convictions drew wide attention when he chose not to compete in the 100 meters because the first heat was held on Sunday. Just the year before, Liddell had set a British record of 9.7 seconds for the 100 yards in the AAA Championships and had been heavily favored for the 100 meters in Paris.
Former POW Louis Zamperini was born in 1917 in Olean, N.Y., but would spend the great majority of his life in California. Zamperini’s running prowess came to light during his high school years when he was already competing against college athletes. He won the 1933 UCLA Cross Country two-mile race by more than a quarter of a mile.
Zamperini was just 19 when he competed in the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Though he did not earn a medal, he ran by far the fastest time for an American that year in the 5,000 meters. Besides his youthful Olympic performance, Zamperini was also closing in on the long-anticipated 4-minute mile.
Ten years after Roger Bannister finally broke the 4-minute mile in 1954, Jim Ryun became the first high school runner to press below that barrier as a junior at Wichita, (Kan.) High School East. Ryun also qualified for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. In 1965, Ryun set a mile time of 3:55.3 that would stand as a national high school record for 36 years. He would win a silver medal in the 1,500 meters in 1968 at Mexico City and would compete again in the 1972 Munich Olympics.
Since the founding of the modern Olympics in 1894 and the first Summer Olympic Games in Athens, Greece, two years later, the games have represented much more than athletic excellence. The Olympic Charter reads in part, “The goal of Olympism is to place sport at the service of the harmonious development of humankind, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity.”
But that goal has not always been well served by world events. Two world wars would eliminate the games in 1916, 1940 and 1944, and the Second World War would radically shape the lives of Liddell and Zamperini.
With the Japanese invasion of China in 1931, Liddell’s ministry there became increasingly dangerous. When the British government advised British nationals to leave China in 1941, Liddell’s wife, Florence, took their three daughters to Canada. Liddell continued to serve as a missionary until he was interned by the Japanese in 1943.
In May, former film producer Lord David Puttnam (who made the Academy Award-winning film Chariots of Fire about Liddell’s triumph at the 1924 Olympics) gave a lecture at the University of Edinburgh entitled “Eric Liddell: All of Life Is a Race.” Puttnam spoke of Liddell’s final years:
“Eric’s courage, his commitment, and his profound sense of self-sacrifice were to see him through his final days at the Weihsien internment camp in China. I assume that at least some of you know the story of his giving up the opportunity to be released from the camp in favor of a young woman who was expecting a baby. And it’s stories like that which I think help explain his quite extraordinary reputation in China. Along with the Canadian doctor Edgar Snow he’s among very, very few Westerners who are to this day officially honored throughout that vast and complex country.”
Liddell died in the camp in 1945.
Zamperini would never compete in the Olympics after Berlin, though he would go on to carry the Olympic torch in five different games. He joined the Army Air Corps in 1941 just months before Pearl Harbor.
Stationed in Hawaii during 1942 as a bombardier, Zamperini fought in the Pacific theater. When his crew conducted a search mission for a downed plane on May 27, 1943, mechanical failure sent their own craft into the ocean. Zamperini and two other crew members survived the crash. They would drift in two rafts for weeks.
Tail-gunner Francis McNamara died after 33 days at sea. Zamperini and pilot Allen “Phil” Phillips reached the Marshall Islands on the 47th day. But that was only the beginning of their trials. Captured by the Japanese, the men would spend the rest of the war on the edge of survival in Japanese internment camps.
Zamperini shared his story in two memoirs. His life saga reached a worldwide audience when Laura Hillenbrand published her 2010 best-seller, Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption.
Liddell, Zamperini and Ryun share another common denominator in life. Or, more accurately, they share a common denominator in renewed life. They each made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ as their Savior, and that decision radically transformed them.
Ryun described that experience in an interview with the Pentecostal Evangel in 1996, the same year he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives to represent Kansas’ 2nd District:
“On May 18, 1972, my wife, Anne, and I prayed and invited Jesus into our lives. There was an overwhelming sense of peace. I have to confess that I was skeptical at first. But about the third day after I accepted Christ, I woke up that morning and I said, ‘Lord, there’s something very special about this. How can such a simple prayer — asking forgiveness and acknowledging my sins and inviting You into my life — make such a difference?’
“And I felt like He said to me, ‘I love you, because I love you — not because of what you’ve accomplished.’ For me that was like walking into a new room of my life. Someone loved me, not because I was fast, but because He just loved me. My identity and purpose in life were defined.”
Ryun served in Congress until 2007. Since 1973, he and his family have hosted the Adidas Jim Ryun Running Camps every summer for young and adult runners in Gettysburg, Pa., and Fort Collins, Colo.
“My camp is unique in that the instruction is geared toward developing the total runner — physically, mentally and spiritually,” Ryun says. “Campers learn how to apply racing, training strategies, as well as hear from top Christian athletes who will share how their faith has helped them reach their fullest potential.”
Zamperini continues to speak of his faith in Christ as he meets with churches and civic groups at a pace few other 95-year-olds could match. In a recent interview with CBS News, he highlighted the power of forgiveness, a truth he discovered at a Billy Graham evangelistic crusade in 1949.
Graham spoke of Christ’s offer to forgive any sinner. When Zamperini responded to the message, his life changed immediately and radically.
“It was the first night in two years and a half that I didn’t have a nightmare, and I haven’t had one since,” he told CBS’ Chip Reid. “So it was forgiveness that was a complete healing factor in my life.”
Zamperini was so determined to apply to others the forgiveness he had received that he returned to Japan in 1950 and personally forgave Japanese prison guards who had once tortured him.
“The most important thing in my Christian life,” Zamperini said, “was to know that I not only forgave them verbally, but to see them face to face and to tell them I forgave them.”
Though Liddell’s life was cut short 67 years ago, his influence on others for Christ has continued and even grown. David Michell, a child in the Weihsien camp where Liddell died, would grow up to serve as Canadian director for OMF International (formerly China Inland Mission and Overseas Missionary Fellowship).
In an introduction to The Disciplines of the Christian Life, a book published from rare copies of Liddell’s devotional writings, Michell would reflect on the Scottish champion:
“None of us will ever forget this man who was totally committed to putting God first, a man whose humble life combined muscular Christianity with radiant godliness.
“What was his secret? He unreservedly committed his life to Jesus Christ as his Savior and Lord. That friendship meant everything to him.”
SCOTT HARRUP is managing editor of the Pentecostal Evangel.
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