The Olympic champion who still inspires 100 years on


The Eric Liddell Community Eric LiddellThe Eric Liddell Community

Eric Liddell became known as the Flying Scotsman for his sprinting prowess

The opening scene of the Oscar-winning 1981 film Chariots of Fire is one of the best known and most imitated in movie history.

Shot on the magnificent West Sands at St Andrews, it shows a group of young athletes, all dressed in white, running barefoot along the water’s edge as Vangelis’s score swells in the background.

Among them is Scottish athlete Eric Liddell whose feats at the Paris Olympics exactly 100 years ago have become the stuff of legend.

With the latest Olympics just weeks away, and also being held in the French capital, Liddell’s legacy is once again being remembered.

The Eric Liddell Community Liddell's legacy is still inspiring athletes todayThe Eric Liddell Community

Liddell’s legacy is still inspiring athletes today

A devout Christian, Liddell famously withdrew from his best event – the 100m – because the heats were held on a Sunday and he considered it to be a day of religious observance.

Five days later, on Friday 11 July 1924, he ran in the 400m and secured his place in history.

Not only did he collect gold by a margin of six metres but he also set a world record of 47.6 seconds in the process.

He remains the last British man to win Olympic gold in the event.

Eilidh Doyle

Eilidh Doyle won bronze in the 400m relay at the 2016 Olympics in Rio

Eilidh Doyle, who won bronze in the 400m relay at the 2016 Olympics in Rio, said the 400m is not a race that sprinters like to compete in.

”It’s known as one of the hardest events,” she said.

Doyle said the training is very different for the two events.

“To then go and win and run the fastest time in history, at that moment, was incredible,” she said.

”I think it just shows, not only his physical capabilities, but also that mindset to be like, ‘this isn’t going to be a barrier for me, I’m just going to go and do that’.”

The Eric Liddell Community Soon after his Olympic triumph, Liddell returned to China to become a missionaryThe Eric Liddell Community

Soon after his Olympic triumph, Liddell returned to China to become a missionary

Liddell was born in China in 1902 to Scots missionary parents.

He studied at Edinburgh University and became known as the Flying Scotsman for sprinting prowess.

Allan Wells, who won Olympic gold at the Men’s 100m sprint in Moscow in 1980, said Liddell was inspirational.

He said: “To run what he did on cinder tracks is unbelievable.

”He had guts and determination.”

Before he won Olympic gold, Liddell also played rugby for Scotland, winning seven caps in the early 1920s.

Wells said: ”When you delve into his Christianity and his missionary work, and the rugby player, I’m certainly in awe of him.

”I think that you shouldn’t forget great athletes, and what they’ve achieved, but in this instance, this is just a bit more than being an athlete and winning an Olympic gold medal.”

Missionary work

Soon after his Olympic triumph, Liddell finished his studies and returned to China to become a missionary.

As well as religious duties, he worked as a science and sports teacher at the Anglo/Chinese College in Tianjin.

After the Japanese invasion in 1937, Liddell carried on his missionary work even when it became dangerous to do so.

Liddell’s wife and children left China for Canada in 1941 but he stayed to help in any way he could.

In 1943 he was interned at Weifang and he died of a brain tumour just months before the end of World War II, at the age of 43.

Liddell's niece Sue Caton says the film shows him to be quite serious

Liddell’s niece Sue Caton says the film shows him to be quite serious

Chariots of Fire, which won a Best Picture Oscar, brought Liddell back to public attention in the 1980s.

Liddell’s niece Sue Caton says the film shows him to be quite serious but he was less sombre in real life.

”He wasn’t a serious character at all,” she says.

”I think he was shown as that in the film but underneath it all he was quite mischievous, because my auntie Flo, who was his wife, told us some nice stories about how he was a joker.”

She said his middle daughter was named Heather after it was chosen by drawing lots.

“He put names in a cup and, of course, the name Heather came out.

“Because he’d written Heather on all of them.”



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