Wednesday, December 17, 2014

The Remarkable Spirit of Eric Liddell

"It's love that makes the world go round" - W.S. Gilbert

Very recently, in October 2014, renowned Hollywood producer Gary Kurtz (of original Star Wars / The Empire Strikes Back fame) announced undertaking of a new movie project about the decades which Eric Liddell spent in China subsequent to the 1924 Paris Olympic Games. The new movie project by Kurtz will attempt to capture the extraordinary and inspiring story of Liddell when he returned to China as a missionary helping the many who were poor while educating the local youth through sport.

For just a moment, looking back, there have been so many great Olympians since the inception of the modern-era Olympic Games in Athens in 1896. In Track & Field, especially the sprints (100 meters, 200 meters and 400 meters etc.), there have been lot of outstanding athletes with stellar performances as well as dark moments accompanied with major scandals leading to surrender and/or confiscation of medals. Especially in the last couple of decades, there have occurred so many doping scandals, allegations and/or improprieties, high-priced sponsors with multi-million dollar endorsement contracts, television and media deals, just to name a few. More than anything else, the inspiring few who have competed in the Olympic Games left, more than a legacy, an unforgettable mark on humankind while uplifting the human spirit. In this regard, it is sometimes heartening to refresh, recall and reflect on the “The Remarkable Spirit of Eric Liddell”.

To date, there have been books, commentaries and related written about Liddell, known as “The Flying Scotsman”. In addition, the motion picture “Chariots of Fire”, centering on events leading up to and including the 1924 Paris Olympic Games, won the Oscar for Best Picture in 1981 at the 54th Academy Awards in Hollywood.

In order to better understand and appreciate Liddell’s achievements, it is important to recognize his athletic skills. He specialized in the sprints, namely, 100 meters, 200 meters and 400 meters as well as the corresponding relay races (4 x 100 meters and 4 x 400 meters). Liddell was, in all sense, a true amateur and did not have a traditional coach nor employed a professional coach for any of his training or competition.

Moreover, Liddell’s training was also “non-traditional” in that it included a lot of “off-the-track” speed and interval drills and wind sprints on the beach, grass, hills, etc. as compared to solely the traditional methods on the track and under the supervision of an established coach. The above is in context to his contemporaries, in both Europe and the United States, which benefited from formal training programs that were well established with latest state-of-the-art facilities and coaches while complemented by advanced methods and techniques.

Liddell’s running form, appearing quite unorthodox, was often sarcastically commented on by competitors and other fellow athletes in that he often held his head back as he sprinted in the final stretch as well as his hands reaching, grasping and grabbing “in-space” as he ran. Some even termed Liddell’s running style as “running like a wild animal” or the “ugliest runner”. Liddell’s running form was best supported by his teammate, Harold Abrahams, winner of the 100 meters gold medal at the 1924 Paris Olympics; "People may shout their heads off about his appalling style. Well, let them. He gets there."

There is no doubt in anyone’s mind about Liddell’s athletic accomplishments. From his initial race in 1921 in Edinburgh to his first national debut in Scotland in 1923 to his final competition in 1925, Liddell blazed through the various track events competing in 100 meters/yards, 200 meters/yards, 400 meters/yards and corresponding relays.

Liddell’s Olympic greatness was clearly demonstrated and highlighted at the 1924 Paris Olympic Games. Based on his personal decision not to compete on a Sunday due to his personal spiritual beliefs, Liddell did not participate in any qualifying heats for the 100 meters nor the 4 x 100 meters or 4 x 400 meters relay. In the 200 meters, Liddell made it through quarterfinals and semi-finals to participate in the finals along with Harold Abrahams of the United Kingdom. Liddell came in 3rd place to win the bronze medal while Jackson Scholz and Charles Paddock of the United States came in 1st and 2nd places respectively. In the 400 meters, Liddell made it through the quarterfinals and semi-finals. Due to the outcome of semi-finals results, Liddell was assigned to the outer-most lane in the finals wherein he could not literally see his fellow competitors during the entire race. In other words, Liddell had to run his own race the entire way. Amazingly, Liddell crossed the finish line in 1st place with nearly two (2) meters ahead of the 2nd place finisher, world record holder Horatio Fitch of the United States. Liddell’s time of 47.6 seconds broke the Olympic and World Record set earlier by Fitch.

The legacy of Eric Liddell continues as he embodied the Olympic ideals by the way he lived his day-to-day life. He often greeted and shook hands with competitors and came alongside those who were shunned because they were from different walks-of-life. He selflessly led and taught youth in schools and was both a coach and referee. He worked with the very poorest and rescued victims in war-torn China during World War II. Liddell truly symbolized the words “selfless love, service and sacrifice” and set a remarkable example for multiple generations to follow.



Thursday, October 2, 2014

Wilma Rudolph – An Amazing Role Model

To date, much has been written, motion pictures made, commentaries given on Wilma Rudolph. Many titles have been given to her, to name just a few; “The Tornado," The Fastest Woman on Earth; "The Black Gazelle" and; "The Black Pearl". Wilma was one of the most famous alumni of Tennessee State University (TSU) and its “Tigerbelles”, the name of the TSU women's track and field program.

She won an Olympic bronze medal at the 1956 Melbourne Games in the Women’s 4 x 100 meters relay. She then went on amazingly to win gold medals at the 1960 Rome Olympic Games in the Women’s 100 meters, 200 meters and the 4 x 100 meters relay. Wilma’s phenomenal achievements at the 1960 Rome Olympics made her one of the most decorated female athletes of all time. Her time-enduring Olympic champion athlete status literally shattered longstanding gender barriers in previously “all-male” track and field events.

Wilma’s many awards are just a mere glimpse to her greatness which include, but not limited to, the following:

·         United Press Athlete of the Year 1960
·         Associated Press Woman Athlete of the Year 1960
·         James E. Sullivan Award for Good Sportsmanship 1961 *
·         The Babe Zaharias Award 1962
·         European Sportswriters' Sportsman of the Year *
·         Christopher Columbus Award for Most Outstanding International Sports Personality 1960*
·         The Penn Relays 1961 *
·         New York Athletic Club Track Meet *
·         The Millrose Games *
·         Black Sports Hall of Fame 1980
·         U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame 1983
·         Vitalis Cup for Sports Excellence 1983
·         Women's Sports Foundation Award 1984

*Indicates first woman to receive the award / invitation

From her humble beginnings in June 1940 in Clarksville, Tennessee, Wilma’s life journey is a testament to the human story of triumph over trials, tribulations and overcoming multitude of odds which often seem insurmountable.

It has been said that life is a great teacher, in that, often she gives the experience first, and then the lesson. For Wilma, her life was not only her experience, but, her gift to the world as it watched her in total awe on the world’s greatest athletics stage; the Olympic Games.

From being born premature with a weight of just 4.5 pounds, Wilma’s life challenges were not only to overcome racial segregation, but also, multiple illnesses ranging from measles, mumps, scarlet fever, chicken pox to double pneumonia. Moreover, once she was taken to a doctor for examination, wherein it was found that her left leg and foot were becoming weaker and deformed due to crippling and incurable polio, and that she would never walk again. With relentless time, energy, and efforts by her mother, over the course of two years, Wilma was able to continually walk with the support of a metal leg brace. Her family never gave up and helped in ongoing physical therapy, slowly but surely, she was able to gain strength. By the time she was 12 years old, Wilma started to walk normally with no crutches, brace, or corrective shoes. From that moment onwards, Wilma’s steady and heroic rise in the world of track and field is truly unbelievable and for the historians to be amazed.

In retrospect, it is truly amazing to sometimes look back over the last few decades and realize the advances in elite athletics. Multiple world records have been broken and remarkable times set. In addition, major media contracts, endorsements, and promotions are the mainstay. There have been also multiple doping scandals through Performance Enhancement Drugs (PED’s) and related. The sports world, however, has been very fortunate indeed that Wilma Rudolph has graced the multitude of stadiums in places such as; Tennessee, New York, Melbourne, and Rome.

Many more books may be written, motion pictures may be made, and commentaries given on Wilma Rudolph. Her true greatness is beyond just her many track and field races, Olympic gold medals, as well as accolades and awards. Wilma Rudolph’s legacy reminds us all that we come from various walks of life, multitude of circumstances, and challenges. Each and every one of us, with inner strength and courage, in the end must rise above and beyond, striving to achieve excellence in Sprit-Mind-Body. Life is more about what we truly achieve with what we are inherently endowed, and not so much which comes from external sources. Wilma Rudolph’s true greatness has, is, and continues to inspire generations as she is a role model and example for all on the journey of Life.