Eric Liddell was a Scottish Olympic gold medallist, rugby union international and Christian missionary. He is best remembered for refusing to compete on Sundays during the 1924 Paris Olympics because of his belief, based on the Bible, that Sundays are set aside by God as special and not for work. The events surrounding the Paris Olympics were the subject of the 1981 Oscar-winning film ‘Chariots of Fire’. Liddell was born in China and returned after the Olympics to work as a missionary teacher. He was imprisoned when the Japanese occupied China in the Second World War and he died in an internment camp.
The events surrounding the Paris Olympics were the subject of the 1981 Oscar-winning film ‘Chariots of Fire’.
Eric Liddell was born in January 1902 in Tientsin (now Tianjin) in northern China. His parents were Christian missionaries with the London Mission Society. He and his elder brother, Rob, went to a boarding school for the sons of missionaries at Eltham in south London. He saw his parents and sister when they returned to the family home in Edinburgh. In 1920 he joined Rob at Edinburgh University where he studied Pure Science. He graduated after the 1924 Paris Olympics and went on to study Theology for a year. His strong Christian faith was part of his university life. He was asked to become a speaker for the Glasgow Students Evangelistic Union because it hoped he would draw big crowds to hear about his faith.
Early sporting career
At school, Liddell was an outstanding sportsman. He was recognised as the best athlete in his year but also went on to captain the school cricket and rugby union teams. At university his reputation grew. He became known as the fastest runner in Scotland, his successes earning him newspaper coverage. He ran in the 100-yard and 220-yard races for the university and played for its rugby club. He was selected to play for Scotland’s national side as a back and scored four tries during his international career. In 1922 and 1923 he played seven games for Scotland in the Five Nations tournaments.
But it was athletics where he was really making his name. He gave up rugby to focus on it. In 1923 he won the 100-yard and 220-yard races at the Amateur Athletics Association championships. In the 100-yard race he set a new British record of 9.7 seconds which stood for 23 years. All his training was building towards the 1924 Olympics.
The Paris Olympics
Eric Liddell’s strong Christian convictions meant that he regarded Sunday as the Sabbath – a day set aside by God for rest, reflection and worship rather than recreation or work. The Bible book, Exodus, sets out the Ten Commandments which God gave to the ancient Hebrew people. The fourth commandment says, ‘…Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy… six days you will do all your work… but the seventh day is a Sabbath day to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work…’ Eric Liddell took this very seriously and he refused to compete on Sundays. The athletics schedule for the Olympic Games was published months before the 1924 Games. Liddell knew the heats for his best event, the 100 metres, were scheduled for a Sunday. Efforts to make the Olympic authorities change the schedule failed and so Liddell withdrew from the event. His friend DP Thomson said later, ‘That decision there was no hope of changing. It was based on principles from which he never deviated a hair’s breadth.’ Liddell also withdrew from the 4x100 metres and 4x400 metres relay teams, where Great Britain stood a chance of success, because the finals were on a Sunday. Liddell did compete in the 200 metres, winning a bronze. His absence from the 100 metres left the field clear for his English rival, Harold Abrahams, to take gold.
'It has been a wonderful experience to compete in the Olympic Games and to bring home a gold medal. But since I have been a young lad, I have had my eyes on a different prize.'
In the months before the Olympics, Liddell concentrated instead on the 400 metres, where the Paris final was on a weekday. Liddell’s 400 metres time was less impressive. But in the heats in Paris he broke the world record three times in two days. In a thrilling final, he sprinted into an early lead and held on to win, setting a European record that stood for 12 years. Speaking of what he saw as his God-given talent he said, ‘God made me fast. And when I run, I feel His pleasure’.
But for Liddell, a fierce competitor, an Olympic gold was not the most important prize in life, 'It has been a wonderful experience to compete in the Olympic Games and to bring home a gold medal,’ he said later. ‘But since I have been a young lad, I have had my eyes on a different prize. You see, each one of us is in a greater race than any I have run in Paris, and this race ends when God gives out the medals.’
Missionary work in China
Eric Liddell returned to Edinburgh to graduate from university in 1924. He ran his final races in Britain in 1925, winning four events at the Scottish Amateur Athletics Association championships. Then he went to Tientsin in northern China to work as a missionary teacher. He was back in Edinburgh on leave in 1932 when he was ordained as a minister. Returning to China, he married a Canadian, Florence Mackenzie, whose parents were also missionaries. He taught the children of wealthy parents and gave boys sports training. He also ran a church Sunday school and even helped to design the sports stadium in Tientsin.
China became more dangerous in the late 1930s as Japanese influence and aggression grew. Eric was sent to a poor rural base at Siaochang, joining his brother Rob, a doctor. In 1941 the situation had deteriorated so much that British government advised British nationals to leave. Eric and Florence had two daughters and she was pregnant with a third. The family left for Canada but Eric stayed on, helping to provide medical treatment and food. When the mission station was overrun by Japanese troops, Liddell returned to Tientsin. In 1943 he was detained in a civilian internment camp at Weishien with members of the China Inland Mission. Liddell became a leader in the camp, helping the elderly, teaching children and organising games, although not on Sundays. Eric Liddell developed an inoperable brain tumour and died in the camp in February 1945. A fellow internee, the theologian Langdon Gilkey, later wrote, ‘…He was overflowing with good humour and love for life... 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…’