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Eric Henry Liddell (16 January 1902 – 21 February 1945, ) was a Scottish athlete, rugby union international and missionary. His surname is and rhymes with fiddle.

Liddell was the winner of the Men's 400 metres at the 1924 Summer Olympics held in Parismarker. He was portrayed in the film Chariots of Fire.

Born in Chinamarker, Liddell returned there as a Protestant missionary in later life.


Eric Liddell, often called the "Flying Scotsman", was born in Tianjinmarker (formerly transliterated as Tientsin) (Chinese 天津) in North Chinamarker, second son of the Rev & Mrs James Dunlop Liddell who were Scottish missionaries with the London Missionary Society. Liddell was born in 1902 and went to school in China until the age of five. At the age of six, he and his brother Rob, eight years old, were enrolled in Eltham Collegemarker, Mottinghammarker, a boarding school in Englandmarker for the sons of missionaries. Their parents and sister Jenny returned to China. During the boys' time at Eltham their parents, sister and new brother Ernest came home on furlough two or three times and were able to be together as a family - mainly living in Edinburghmarker.

At Eltham, Liddell was an outstanding sportsman, being awarded the Blackheathmarker Cup as the best athlete of his year, playing for the First XI and the First XV by the age of 15, later becoming captain of both the cricket and rugby union teams. His headmaster described him as being 'entirely without vanity'.

Eric Liddell became well-known for being the fastest runner in Scotland while at Eltham College. Newspapers carried the stories of his successful track meets. Many articles stated that he was a potential Olympic winner, and no one from their country had ever won a gold medal before.

Liddell was chosen to speak for Glasgow Students' Evangelical Union (GSEU) because he was a strong Christian. The GSEU hoped that he would draw large crowds, so that many people would hear the Gospel. The GSEU would send out a group of eight to ten men to an area where they would stay with the local population. It was Liddell's job to be the lead speaker and to evangelize the men of Scotland.

University of Edinburgh

In 1921, Eric joined his brother Rob at the University of Edinburgh to study Pure Science. Athletics and rugby played a large part in Eric's university life. He ran in the 100 yards race and the 220 yards race for Edinburgh University and later played for the Scottish national rugby union team. He played rugby for Edinburgh University and in 1922 made his way into the very strong Scottish backline. In 1922 and 1923, he played in seven out of eight Five Nations matches with A. L. Gracie. In 1923 he won the AAA Championships in athletics in the 100 yards race (in a British record of 9.7 seconds: this record would not be broken for the next 35 years) and 220 yards (21.6 seconds). He graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree after the Paris Olympiad in 1924.

Once every four years Edinburgh University will hold a parade in honour of Eric Liddell's devotion to his cause.

Eltham College's sports centre was named "Eric Liddell Sports Centre" in memory of Eric Liddell.

Paris Olympics

Eric Liddell
During the summer of 1924, the Olympics were hosted by the city of Parismarker. Liddell was a committed Christian and refused to run on Sunday (the Christian Sabbath), with the consequence that he was forced to withdraw from the 100 metres race, his best event. The schedule had been published several months earlier, and his decision was made well before the Games began. Liddell spent the intervening months training for the 400 metres, an event in which he had previously excelled. Even so, his success in the 400m was largely unexpected. The day of 400 metres race came, and as Liddell went to the starting blocks, an American masseur slipped a piece of paper into Liddell's hand with a quotation from 1 Samuel 2:30, "Those who honour me I will honour." Liddell ran with that piece of paper in his hand. He not only won the race, but broke the existing world record with a time of 47.6 seconds. A few days earlier Liddell had competed in the 200 metre finals, for which he received the bronze medal behind Americans Jackson Scholz and Charles Paddock, beating Harold Abrahams, who finished in sixth place. (This was the second and last race in which these two runners met.)

His performance in the 400 metres in Paris remained a world record for four years, and a European record for 12 years, until it was beaten by another British athlete, Godfrey Brown, at the Berlin Olympics.

After the Olympics and his graduation, Liddell continued to compete. Shortly after the 1924 Olympics, his final leg on the 4 x 400 metres race in a British Empire vs. USAmarker contest helped secure the victory. A year later, in 1925, at the Scottish Amateur Athletics Association (AAA) meeting in Hampden Parkmarker in Glasgowmarker, he equalled his own Scottish championship record of 10.0 seconds in the 100 yards, won the 220 yard contest in 22.2 seconds, won the 440 yard contest in 47.7, and participated in a winning relay team. He was only the fourth athlete ever to have won all three sprints at the SAAA, achieving this feat twice: in 1924 and 1925.

Because of his birth and death in the country some of China's Olympic literature lists the Scotsman as China's first Olympic champion.

Service in China

Liddell returned to Northern China where he served as a missionary, like his parents, from 1925 to 1943 - first in Tianjin and later in the town of Xiaozhang (Simplified Chinese 肖张镇), Zaoqiang Countymarker, Hengshuimarker, Hebei provincemarker. During this time he continued to compete sporadically, including wins over members of the 1928 French and Japanese Olympic teams in the 200 and 400 metres at the South Manchurian Railway celebrations in China in 1928 and a victory at the 1930 North China championship.

Liddell's first job as a missionary was as a teacher at an Anglo-Chinese College (grades 1-12) for wealthy Chinese students. It was believed that by teaching the children of the wealthy that they themselves would later become influential figures in China and promote Christian values. He used his athletic experience to train the boys in a number of different sports. One of his many responsibilities was that of superintendent of the Sunday school at Union Church where his father was pastor. Liddell lived at 38 Chongqing Dao (formerly known as Cambridge Road) in Tianjin and a plaque still stands today to commemorate his former residence. He also helped build the Minyuan Stadium in Tianjin. He suggested that it be copied exactly from Chelsea's football groundmarker as he had run there previously, and this was said to be his favourite running venue.

During his first furlough in 1932, he was ordained as a minister of religion. On his return to China he married Florence Mackenzie of Canadianmarker missionary parentage in Tianjin in 1934. Liddell courted his future wife by taking her for lunch to the famous Kiesling restaurant which is still open in Tianjin. They had three daughters, Patricia, Heather and Maureen, the last of whom he would not live to see. The school Eric taught at is still used as a school today. One of Liddell's daughters visited Tianjin in 1991 and presented the headmaster of the school with one of the medals that Eric had won for athletics.

In 1941 life in China was becoming so dangerous that the British Government advised British nationals to leave. Florence and the children left for Canada to stay with her family when Liddell accepted a new position at a rural mission station in Shaochang, which gave service to the poor. He joined his brother, Rob, who was a doctor there. The station was severely short of help and the missionaries who served there were exhausted. There was a constant stream of local people who came at all hours to get medical treatment. Liddell arrived at the station in time to relieve his brother who was ill, needing to go on furlough. Liddell suffered many hardships himself at this mission station. Eric's daughter remembers that her father was still such a fast runner that he caught a wild hare for dinner during war rationing.

Meanwhile, the Chinese and the Japanese were at war. When the fighting reached Shaochang the Japanese took over the mission station. In 1943, Liddell was interned at the Weihsien (now known as Weifangmarker) Internment Camp with the members of the China Inland Mission Chefoo School. Liddell became a leader at the camp and helped get it organized. Food, medicines, and other supplies ran short at the camp. There were many cliques in the camp and when some rich businessmen managed to smuggle in some eggs to the camp, Liddell shamed them into sharing them with the rest of the camp. Fellow missionaries were forming cliques, moralising, and acting selfishly. Eric kept himself busy by helping the elderly, teaching at the camp school Bible classes, arranging games and also by teaching the children science. He was known to the children as Uncle Eric.

It was also claimed that one Sunday Liddell refereed a hockey match to stop fighting amongst the players as he was trusted not to take sides by the two teams. One of Liddell's fellow internees, Norman Cliff, later wrote a book about his experiences in the camp called "The Courtyard of the Happy Way" which gave details of all the remarkable characters in the camp. The writer stated that Liddell was "the finest Christian gentleman it has been my pleasure to meet. In all the time in the camp, I never heard him say a bad word about anybody." The camp was originally a mission school named The Courtyard of the Happy Way. (Chinese: 樂道院, which could also mean the Campus of Loving Truth).

In his last letter to his wife, written on the day he died, he talks about suffering a nervous breakdown in the camp due to overwork, but in actuality he was suffering from an inoperable brain tumour, to which being overworked and malnourished probably hastened his demise. He died on 21 February 1945, five months before liberation. He was greatly mourned not only at the Weihsien internment Camp but also in Scotland as well. A fellow internee, Langdon Gilkey, was later to write, "The entire camp, especially its youth, was stunned for days, so great was the vacuum that Eric's death had left." Liddell's last words were allegedly "It's complete surrender."

It was recently revealed by the Chinese authorities that Liddell had given up an opportunity to leave the camp and instead gave his place to a pregnant woman. Apparently, the Japanese did a deal with the British, with Churchill's approval, for prisoner exchange. Therefore, because Eric was a famous athlete he was one of the chosen as part of the prisoner exchange. However, he gave his place to another. This information was released near the time of the Beijing Olympics by the Chinese government and apparently news of this great act of sacrifice came as a surprise even to his family members.Fifty-six years after the 1924 Paris Olympics, Scotsman Allan Wells won the 100 metre sprint at the 1980 Moscow Olympics. When asked after the victory if he had run the race for Harold Abrahams, the last 100 metre Olympic winner from Britain (in 1924), Wells replied, "No, this one was for Eric Liddell."

Eric Liddell was voted in The Scotsman newspaper in an 8 August 2008 poll as the most popular athlete Scotland has ever produced.


In 1991, a memorial headstone, made from Isle of Mullmarker granite was unveiled at the former camp site in Weifang, erected by Edinburgh University. A few simple words taken from the Book of Isaiah 40:31, formed the inscription: "They shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run and not be weary." The city of Weifang, as part of the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the internment camp, commemorated the life of Liddell by laying a wreath at the memorial headstone marking his grave in 2005.

Chariots of Fire

The 1981 film Chariots of Fire commemorated the Olympic triumphs and contrasted the lives and viewpoints of both Liddell and Harold Abrahams, with Ian Charleson portraying Liddell. One inaccuracy in the movie surrounds Liddell's refusal to race in the 100 metres. The film portrays Liddell as finding out that one of the heats was to be held on a Sunday as he was boarding the boat that would take the British Olympic team across the English Channelmarker on their way to Paris. Actually, the schedule and Liddell's decision were known several months in advance, though his refusal to participate remains significant. (Liddell had also been selected to run as a member of the 4 x 100 relay and 4 x 400 relay teams at the Olympics but also declined these spots as their heats, too, were to be run on a Sunday.)

The scene in the movie where Liddell fell early in a 440 yard race in a Scotlandmarker-Francemarker dual meet and made up a 20-metre deficit to win the race is, however, historically accurate except that the actual race was during a Triangular Contest meet between Scotland, England and Ireland at Stoke-on-Trent in England in July 1923. Liddell was knocked to the ground several strides into the race. He hesitated, got up and went after his opponents, now twenty metres ahead. He caught the leaders shortly before the finishing line and collapsed in exhaustion after crossing the tape.

Liddell's unorthodox running style as portrayed in the movie, with his head back and his mouth wide open, is also said to be historically accurate. At an athletics championship in Glasgow, a visitor watching the 440 yard final in which Liddell was a long way from the leaders at the start of the last lap (of a 220 yard track) remarked to a Glasgow native that Liddell would be hard put to win the race. The Glaswegian merely replied, "His head's no' back yet." Liddell then threw his head back and with mouth wide open caught and passed his opponents to win the race.


“We are all missionaries. Wherever we go, we either bring people nearer to Christ, or we repel them from Christ.”

"I believe that God made me for a purpose, but He also made me fast. When I run, I feel His pleasure."


  1. Chariots of Fire's Liddell, a Chinese hero? - By Nick Mulvenney (Aug 6, 2008) Reuters
  2. Xiaozhang was spelled as Siaochang in most Western documents according to Wade-Giles system. Later some people "corrected" it to Shaochang according to pinyin system and invented its name in Chinese as 韶昌 accordingly, which does not exist at all.

Further reading

  • Keddie, John (& Lord Sebastian Coe) Running the Race Evangelical Press, 2007. ISBN 9780852346655
  • Magnusson, Sally. The Flying Scotsman Quartet Books, 1981. ISBN 0704333791
  • Swift, Catherine. Eric Liddell Bethany House Publishers, 1990. ISBN 1-55661-150-1
  • Caughey, Ellen. Eric Liddell: Olympian and Missionary Barbour Books, 2000. ISBN 1-57748-667-6
  • Langdon Gilkey. Shantung Compound Harper & Row, 1966, pp. 192-193. ISBN 0-06-063113-9
  • McCasland, David. Eric Liddell: Pure Gold: A New Biography Of The Olympic Champion Who Inspired Chariots Of Fire. Discovery House Publishers, 2003. ISBN 1572931302
  • Eric Liddell, The disciplines of the Christian life, Abingdon Press, 1985.
  • Eric Liddell, The Sermon on the Mount : notes for Sunday School teachers.
  • Janet & Geoff Benge. Eric Liddell: Something Greater Than Gold. Youth With A Mission Publishing, 1999. ISBN 1576581373

External links

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