(Ian Charleson, playing Eric Liddell, leads the cast on the sands of St. Andrews)
Is it just me or does it seem that our news headlines have recently been inundated
with the stories about the struggles of our Nation’s younger athletic phenoms.
And in struggles I don’t mean physical ailments or injuries but rather
mental health struggles.
Earlier this year, twenty three year old tennis great Naomi Osaka
withdrew from playing in the Wimbledon Open due to anxiety, depression
Isn’t that pretty much the life of training and competing for athletes?
Depression from the agony of defeat??
And then just yesterday, gymnastics superstar Simone Biles withdrew from
Olympic Competition due, also, to “mental health” issues.
Recently I watched several of the Olympic Gymnastic events and noticed that,
for the girl’s US team, there just wasn’t that usual spunk, no joie de vive.
The camaraderie and banter, along with the hugs and smiles, appeared to be
few and far between…
And yes I remember there’s a pandemic but this goes beyond that.
The familiar unity, the smiles, the group support did not seem as apparent
with this Olympic girl’s squad as it has in the past.
Not until Simone withdrew and an apparent invisible weight lifted from
Maybe it’s just me but I’ve sensed more trepidation.
and heaviness then I have a typical competitive team energy.
Of course there should always be those serious game faces,
but there’s just not that emblematic team embrace as with teams prior.
Compare this year’s girl’s team to the men’s team.
This year’s men’s squad has seemed to be working as a cohesive unit of solidarity
despite working as individuals as well as a team unit….
but the girls…
well something has just seemed off with both team and individuals.
The aged stoic in me, who I might add has never ever competed at such
a level as an Olympian but who had always participated in team sports
while growing up say’s ‘suck it up buttercup, this is the Olympics’
Biles was at least seen laughing and cutting up after she “quit” and
thus the pressure was gone…or so it seemed.
And yet a more reflective part of me looks at what we as a society
do to our athletes by putting them up on platforms of worship.
Our expectations, the media’s obsession and the constant buzzing in the
ear and mind from all things Social Media are all heavy weights placed on kids
who push and push and push, year after year after year to be…the best of the best
at all costs.
Yet what of the competitive, the win at any cost athletes?
Think Tom Brady, Michael Phelps et el.
But costs for what???
So at first, I thought I wanted to write a post about things based on
snowflakes, coddeledness, spoiled, whining, golden calves…but rather…
something else popped into my head.
Growing up in the Episcopal Church the Hymn Jerusalem was and remains
a favorite of mine.
And yet despite it being a true English hymn and considered a quasi British National
Anthem…it moves my heart.
The hymn is based on a poem by William Blake and according to Wikipedia…
“And did those feet in ancient time” is a poem by William Blake
from the preface to his epic Milton:
A Poem in Two Books, one of a collection of writings known as the Prophetic Books.
The date of 1804 on the title page is probably when the plates were begun,
but the poem was printed c. 1808.
Today it is best known as the hymn “Jerusalem”,
with music written by Sir Hubert Parry in 1916.
The famous orchestration was written by Sir Edward Elgar.
The poem was supposedly inspired by the apocryphal story that a young Jesus,
accompanied by Joseph of Arimathea, a tin merchant,
travelled to what is now England and visited Glastonbury
during his unknown years.
 Most scholars reject the historical authenticity of this story
out of hand, and according to British folklore scholar
A. W. Smith, “there was little reason to believe that an oral
tradition concerning a visit made by Jesus to Britain existed
before the early part
of the twentieth century”.
The poem’s theme is linked to the Book of Revelation
(3:12 and 21:2) describing a Second Coming, wherein Jesus establishes
a New Jerusalem.
Churches in general, and the Church of England in particular,
have long used Jerusalem as a metaphor for Heaven,
a place of universal love and peace.[a]
In the most common interpretation of the poem,
Blake implies that a visit by Jesus would briefly create heaven in England,
in contrast to the “dark Satanic Mills” of the Industrial Revolution.
Blake’s poem asks four questions rather than asserting the historical
truth of Christ’s visit.
Thus the poem merely wonders if there had been a divine visit,
when there was briefly heaven in England.
The second verse is interpreted as an exhortation to create an ideal
society in England, whether or not there was a divine visit.
So my mind drifted to one of my most favorite movies…Chariots of Fire.
The movie, the soundtrack…each became an integral part of me.
I went to showing after showing and I eventually bought the CD…
sans video cassette.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with the movie, the story…
is a true tale.
The movie came out in 1981 but the true tale reaches back to the early 20th century.
Again…here is what Wikipedia has to share about the plot…
In 1919, Harold Abrahams (Ben Cross) enters the University of Cambridge,
where he experiences anti-Semitism from the staff,
but enjoys participating in the Gilbert and Sullivan club.
He becomes the first person ever to complete the Trinity Great Court Run,
running around the college courtyard in the time it takes for the clock to strike 12,
and achieves an undefeated string of victories in various national
Although focused on his running, he falls in love with Sybil (Alice Krige),
a leading Gilbert and Sullivan soprano.
Eric Liddell (Ian Charleson), born in China of Scottish missionary parents,
is in Scotland.
His devout sister Jennie (Cheryl Campbell) disapproves of Liddell’s plans
to pursue competitive running, but Liddell sees running as a way
of glorifying God before returning to China to work as a missionary.
When they first race against each other, Liddell beats Abrahams.
Abrahams takes it poorly, but Sam Mussabini (Ian Holm),
a professional trainer whom he had approached earlier, offers to take him on
to improve his technique.
This attracts criticism from the Cambridge college masters
(John Gielgud and Lindsay Anderson), who allege it is not gentlemanly
for an amateur to “play the tradesman” by employing a professional coach.
Abrahams dismisses this concern, interpreting it as cover for
anti-Semitic and class-based prejudice.
When Liddell accidentally misses a church prayer meeting because of his running,
his sister Jennie upbraids him and accuses him of no longer caring about God.
Eric tells her that though he intends to return eventually to the China mission,
he feels divinely inspired when running, and that not to run would be to
dishonour God, saying “I believe that God made me for a purpose.
But He also made me fast, and when I run, I feel His pleasure.”
(bold is mine)
The two athletes, after years of training and racing, are accepted
to represent Great Britain in the 1924 Olympics in Paris.
Also accepted are Abrahams’ Cambridge friends,
Lord Andrew Lindsay (Nigel Havers), Aubrey Montague (Nicholas Farrell),
and Henry Stallard (Daniel Gerroll).
While boarding the boat to France for the Olympics,
Liddell discovers the heats for his 100-metre race will be on a Sunday.
He refuses to run the race, despite strong pressure from the Prince of Wales
and the British Olympic Committee, because his Christian convictions
prevent him from running on the Lord’s Day.
A solution is found thanks to Liddell’s teammate Lindsay,
who, having already won a silver medal in the 400 metres hurdles,
offers to give his place in the 400-metre race on the following
Thursday to Liddell, who gratefully accepts.
Liddell’s religious convictions in the face of national athletic pride
make headlines around the world.
Liddell delivers a sermon at the Paris Church of Scotland that Sunday,
and quotes from Isaiah 40, ending with “But they that wait
upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles;
they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint.”
Abrahams is badly beaten by the heavily favoured United States runners
in the 200 metre race. He knows his last chance for a medal will be the 100 metres.
He competes in the race, and wins. His coach Sam Mussabini,
who was barred from the stadium, is overcome that the years of dedication
and training have paid off with an Olympic gold medal.
Now Abrahams can get on with his life and reunite with his girlfriend Sybil,
whom he had neglected for the sake of running.
Before Liddell’s race, the American coach remarks dismissively to his
runners that Liddell has little chance of doing well in his now, far longer,
400 metre race. But one of the American runners, Jackson Scholz,
hands Liddell a note of support, quoting 1 Samuel 2:30
“He that honors Me I will honor”.
Liddell defeats the American favourites and wins the gold medal.
The British team returns home triumphant.
As the film ends, onscreen text explains that Abrahams married Sybil
and became the elder statesman of British athletics.
Liddell went on to missionary work in China.
All of Scotland mourned his death in 1945 in Japanese-occupied China.
And so as I reflect upon our young American athletes who are having a difficult
time with their various world stages, I remember Chariots of Fire.
A tale of two very different men competing for two very different reasons…
yet they compete because they knew they must.
One competes to honor God, the other competes to honor his people, his heritage.
Each man driven to and by honor of something so much greater than themselves.
I watched as the American Gymnasts, who had won silver, went over to
congratulate their Russian competitors who won Gold.
So why do we do what we do?