The Great Scot who won Olympic gold and inspired the film, Chariots of Fire

Without doubt one of Scotland’s greatest sporting heroes, Eric Liddell, owes much of his fame more to a race he didn’t run than any he did. However, the uplifting manner in which he lived his life, as portrayed in the film Chariots of Fire, truly marks him as one of the greatest of Scottish heroes.Eric Henry Liddell, like many Scottish sporting heroes, was not actually born in the country he was to represent with such distinction. Liddell was born on the 16 January 1902 in the city of Tientsin (now Tianjin) in north-eastern China, the son of missionary parents working for the Church of Scotland.

In fact, Liddell was not to find himself living in Scotland unit he entered Edinburgh University in 1920, after 12 years at Eltham College boarding School in Surrey, a school specifically for the children of missionaries. His headmaster at Eltham was to remember Liddell as a boy “entirely without vanity”.

When Eric joined his elder brother Rob at Edinburgh it was to study a BSc in Pure Science. However, test tubes and beakers were never to provide anything like the stimulus that pulled the young Eric in two differing directions – a missionary zeal and an intense talent for sport – both of which were to radically shape the destiny of this young man.
At first, Liddell seemed destined for a career with the oval ball, displaying enough talent at wing three quarter to win seven international caps between 1921 and 1923. Indeed, it is interesting to speculate that Liddell could also have appeared in this website as a member of the 1925 Grand Slam-winning side. However, his life was to follow a different pattern, as, realising there was not time enough in the day for both sports, he chose to concentrate on running – a decision that was to take him to the heights of athletics.

In the early 1920s, Liddell established himself as one of the country’s top runners, regularly scooping not only the Scottish 100- and 220-yard sprinting tiles, but also in the 440-yard contests, a fact often overlooked later. Liddell was also successful in British competition, winning the shorter sprint distances at the Triangular International Contests in 1921, 1922 and 1923, this competition showcasing athletes from Scotland, England and Ireland.

This success made Liddell a dead cert for inclusion in the British Olympic squad which set sail for Paris in 1924, and although he was strongly fancied as a contender in the 100 metres event, he was not destined to race in this, his strongest event.

Due to his religious principles, Liddell refused to run in the 100m heats, which were held on a Sunday (Liddell instead spent that particular Sabbath preaching in the Scots Church in Paris). Instead, the Scot elected to run in 400 metres, a distance in which he was a good performer, but certainly not his forte.

He faced a strong field in that distance, in particular from the American team, one of whom, Jackson Schulz, has bested Liddell in the 200m, and had also to contend with some negative press from some quarters of the British camp, who could not understand his placing God above winning a medal for the King. Liddell was to some extent even helped by the American attitude, as their coach had instructed their runners not to worry about the Scot, who he was sure would burn out after 200m.

Liddell, however, was ready for the challenge, and, after sportingly shaking the hands of each of his competitors, the “Flying Scotsman” was off. An impeccable run saw the Scot not only collecting gold by a margin of some six metres, but also seting a world record of 47.6 seconds in the process.

Perhaps Liddell’s own words can best describe how he came to triumph on that day in Paris “The secret of my success over the 400m is that I run the first 200m as fast as I can. Then, for the second 200m, with God’s help I run faster.”

Many aspects of the film Chariots of Fire were mythologised: Liddell knew that the 100m heats would be on a Sunday six months before the race, and in fact it was Liddell who introduced Harold Abrahams to professional trainer Sam Mussabini.

However, this should not detract from Liddell’s achievement – to win in a race at a distance you are not familiar with is no mean feat, to do it to win Olympic Gold something else again, and to set a world record in the process raises the feat to the incredible.

After his Olympic triumph Liddell threw himself headlong into missionary work, returning to China in 1925, to Tientsin, where he was ordained a minister in 1932. He married Florence Mackenzie two years later, with whom he had three daughters. With the Japanese invasion of China in 1937, Eric was now in Siaochang – occupied territory. In 1941 the British Government advised all British nationals in China to leave and Eric’s family moved to Canada, while Liddell himself remained in China. In 1943 Liddell was interned by the Japanese authorities in a camp at Weishien.

Life in the internment camp was hard, under a brutal regime. Some inmates, mainly oil company executives, managed to bribe the guards into receiving extra rations and luxury goods. Liddell shamed them into sharing these with the rest of the camp inmates. Liddell also, for the first time in his life, indulged in sporting activity on Sundays, refereeing football matches in the camp.

Unfortunately, Liddell was not destined to survive the war. He suffered a brain tumour shortly before the war’s end, and died in the camp.

Upon his death, Liddell’s grave was marked by a simple wooden cross, with his name written on it in boot polish. However, the site was identified many years later, and Edinburgh University erected a stone of Mull granite there in 1991. However, perhaps a tribute that Liddell himself would have more appreciated, was the setting up of the Eric Liddell centre in the old North Morningside Church at “Holy Corner” in Edinburgh.

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