Olympic Glory

Just after the start of the Winter Olympics, Canadian snowboarder Ross Rebagliati won a Gold Medal-and was instantly hailed as an Olympic hero. But then Rebagliati tested positive for marijuana, and the International Olympic Committee stripped him of his medal. The Canadians appealed the decision, and Rebagliati eventually got his medal back. But the story of the stoned snowboarder raises questions about who really deserves to be called a hero. Is a hero merely someone who can snowboard faster, ski-jump farther, or perform a quadruple Lutz better than anyone else? In the history of the Olympic Games, there are those rare individuals who stand out as more than just phenomenal athletes. One comes to mind in particular-someone who was even willing to sacrifice Olympic glory, if necessary, for a higher good: for obedience to God. I'm talking about Eric Liddell, the Scottish runner immortalized in the film Chariots of Fire. It was 1924, and the whole of Scotland looked forward to watching 22-year-old Eric run the 100 meters during the Paris Olympic Games. But a few months prior to the Games, Eric discovered that his heats were scheduled on a Sunday. Eric believed that the Sabbath should be devoted to God--not sports. Sadly, he announced, "I'm not running." Sports fans were astounded--and angry. Eric was Scotland's best hope for Olympic gold. Newspapers hinted that Eric was a traitor to his country for refusing to compete. Eric began to train for the 400 meters--a race that called for completely different skills than the 100 meters. In Paris, on the day of his race, an admirer handed Eric a piece of paper--one with a message that deeply inspired him. It read: "In the old book it says, 'He that honors me I will honor.'" It was a paraphrase of 1 Samuel 2:30. When the starting pistol went off, Eric leaped into the lead. Forty-seven seconds later, the Scot had set a new world record. Back in Scotland, Eric was hailed as a national hero. After the Olympics, Eric became a missionary to China. When he died of a brain tumor in 1945, dozens of memorial services were held. Even today, buildings and sporting clubs are named for Eric. What is it about this soft-spoken Scot that still moves us? In his book True Heroism in a World of Celebrity Counterfeits, Dick Keyes writes that a hero excels at something we prize and inspires us to try to emulate his achievements. But this definition leaves out a crucial factor, Keyes writes. Some of the people best at generating admiration-and at getting others to emulate them-have been dictators like Hitler and Mao Tse-Tung. To distinguish heroes from tyrants, we have to include a moral dimension. We should identify as heroes, Keyes says, only those who "show qualities of moral character that are excellent and worthy of our aspiration." That's what Eric Liddell did when he told his countrymen, "I won't run on Sunday." Take a moment to tell your kids about a true Olympic hero. They'll learn why Eric Liddell still inspires us 74 years after he won his Gold Medal: not because he crossed the finish line first, but because he refused to cross a line on a matter of spiritual honor.


Chuck Colson


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