Eric Liddell was born in China in 1902; his Scottish parents were missionaries and imbued their son with a strong religious faith. Eric arrived in the UK with his family at the age of five; when he was six his parents returned to China, leaving Eric and his brother Robert to board at Eltham School in Surrey, England. His parents made occasional long visits to the UK, and the family would usually gather in Edinburgh.
Liddell was an outstanding sportsman. Although best known for excelling at running, at school he was captain of his school rugby and cricket teams. Whilst at Edinburgh University he gained a place on the Scottish rugby team and played in seven Five Nations matches. He was forced to make a choice between athletics and rugby, and decided to focus his attention on running, a sport which gained him the nickname the Flying Scotsman due to his speed over short distances.
Liddell was chosen to participate in the Paris Olympics of 1924. Six months before the event he learned that the heats for the 100 metres would be held on a Sunday; his extreme devotion to his religious beliefs meant that he decided to forego his place in that event; instead he spent the day of the 100 metres heat preaching at a church in Paris. Liddell’s fallback was to enter the 400 metres – a race that was not his forte. He spent several months preparing for this distance before the Olympics and also trained hard for the 200 metres, a race in which he gained the Bronze medal. Liddell’s 400 metres competitors did not expect him to perform well, yet the Scotsman blew their perceptions to shreds. He not only won the race, attaining the Gold Olympic medal, but he also set a new world record for the distance.
After his Olympic success Liddell continued with his sporting career for a short time, but elected to return to China in 1925 as a missionary. He would still take part in the occasional sporting competition in his new life. He married in 1934 and had three daughters, but in 1941 sent his family away to his wife’s family in Canada due to the dangers of Japanese occupation. Two years later he became a prisoner of war. Two years after that, in 1945 in Weihsien Internment Camp, one of the most magnificent sporting champions Scotland has ever known died aged forty-three of a brain tumour.
The film Chariots of Fire (1981) brilliantly tells the story of Harold Abrahams, who won the 100 metres at those Paris Olympics - and Eric Liddell – one a Jew, the other a Christian. The title of the film comes from William Blake’s Jerusalem - Bring me my Spear O clouds unfold!/Bring me my Chariot of fire. The opening scene - a group of young men running on a beach to the magnificent Vanegllis soundtrack - is one of those moments in British film which once seen is never forgotten. Chariots of Fire reaped numerous awards including several Oscars and the Best Film BAFTA.