Eric Liddell: A Life Dedicated To His God

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Eric Liddell, who died on this day (February 21) in 1945, is most famously remembered for his principled stand against competing on the Sabbath.

Known as the ‘flying Scotsman’ and tipped for gold in the 100 yards at the 1924 Paris Olympics, Liddell refused to take part because the heats were on a Sunday.

Eric Liddell’s unorthodox running style with his head thrown back and mouth wide open was well known as well as his stand against running on a Sunday.

What happened next was to become the setting for an Oscar-winning 1981 film, Chariots of Fire.

Despite a modest record in the 400 metres, he chose to run the longer middle distance event instead. On the morning of the final he was handed a folded piece of paper from the team’s masseurs. It read: ‘In the old book it says: “He that honours me I will honour.” Wishing you the best of success always.’

Inspired by the (misquoted) biblical message from 1 Samuel 3.20) and the faith in him from the author, he sprinted into the lead and went on to win in a world record time of 47.6 seconds.

But Liddell’s greater and more enduring stand for his faith came after the Olympics.

One year later in 1925 he gave up his burgeoning athletic career, which included playing for Scotland at rugby, to become a missionary in China.

He returned to where his parents had served in northern China and taught in an Anglo-Chinese college. He later met and married Florence Mackenzie, a Canadian in 1934. They went on to have three daughters, the last of him Liddell did not live to see.

Asked if he ever regretted leaving behind the fame and glory of his athletics career, Liddell said: ‘It’s natural for a chap to think over all that sometimes, but I’m glad I’m at the work I’m engaged in now. A fellow’s life counts for far more at this than the other.’

Liddell moved to a rural mission station in Xiaozhang which served the poor in 1941 and his wife and children left for Canada because of the growing threat of Japanese invasion.

Two years later in 1943 he was held by the Japanese army at Weihsien Internment Camp.

He was widely praised for his character and passion throughout his time in China, even while imprisoned.

Langdon Gillkey, a fellow inmate who survived the camp wrote of Liddell: ‘Often in an evening I would see him bent over a chessboard or a model boat, or directing some sort of square dance – absorbed, weary and interested, pouring all of himself into this effort to capture the imagination of these penned-up youths.

‘He was overflowing with good humour and love for life, and with enthusiasm and charm. It is rare indeed that a person has the good fortune to meet a saint, but he came as close to it as anyone I have ever known.’

Liddell wrote to his wife the day he died on 21 February 1945 saying he was suffering a nervous breakdown. In fact he had a brain tumour and died in the camp five months before it was liberated.

His feat at the 1924 Olympics has been the subject of memorials, books, documentaries and films. But it was the period 1924 to his death in 1945 that really marked him out as a great.