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The Spirit of Excellence

Written by Gary North on January 2, 2016

And the Lord spake unto Moses saying, See, I have called by name Bazaleel, the son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah: And I have filled him with the spirit of God, in wisdom, and in understanding, and in knowledge, and in all manner of workmanship (Ex. 31:1-3).

There is a scene in the movie, “Chariots of Fire,” in which one of the protagonists, Harold Abrahams, England’s champion sprinter, confronts two senior administrators at Cambridge University. The incident supposedly took place in the early 1920’s. The two officials have called him in to explain to him that university policy frowns on “professionalism” in sports activities. Abrahams had hired a professional trainer to coach him. The two officials laud his performances, which have brought the University considerable prestige. But the senior administrator tells him that the use of a trainer is not quite within the tradition of amateur sports so cherished by the school.

Abrahams is outraged. He tells them that their much-cherished amateur standing is nothing but a facade, that they only want performances to look as though they were performed by amateurs. But they want victories. Then he challenges them: “I pursue excellence, and I shall carry the future with me.” He leaves the room, and the Master says to his associate, “His God is the God of a different mountain.”

The movie is a dramatized (and historically lax) account of a famous rivalry of the early 1920’s, between Abrahams and a Scottish runner, Eric Liddell [LIDdull]. Both ran in the Olympic games in 1924, Abrahams winning the 100-meter dash, and Liddell winning the 400 meters. (The movie failed to mention that Liddell had held the British 100 yards record of 9.7 seconds, and that he set a world record of 47.6 that day in the 400 meter race. The movie also did not mention that both Liddell and Abrahams ran in the 200-meter dash. Liddell came in third, and Abrahams finished last.)

Abrahams was obsessed with winning every race. Liddell, who was to become a Congregationalist missionary to China, ran for the glory of God. He loved to run. Liddell decided to forego the 100-meter dash because the trials were held on Sunday. In the movie version, he came under severe pressure from the British Olympic Committee and the Prince of Wales to run on the Sabbath. Another runner — a rich British lord, who ran simply for enjoyment — gave his spot in the 400 meter race to Liddell, since he was content with the silver medal he had already won in the hurdles.

All of this makes a powerful emotional impression, but it never happened. The true story is even more amazing. You do not switch races at the Olympics; you must qualify first, before the Games. Liddell had known for months before the Games that he could not run the 100 because of the Sabbath. The British sports world did want him to run it, but he refused. What he did was to select the 400, a distance which he had never really concentrated on before. He trained for a little over ten months, in the winter of 1923-24. Then he went out and set the world record. “The secret of my success over the 400 meters,” he told a reporter 20 years later, “is that I run the first 200 meters as hard as I can. Then, for the second 200 meters, with God’s help, I run harder.”

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