A Champion's Life
Races are run and races are won. Records set and broken. Olympic stars rise to eclipse those who have shone in the past. There are also examples
of athletic endeavour that endure. Eric Liddell's Olympic achievements have stood the test of time. Yes, others have run faster, but no one embodies
the spirit of the games better than Eric Liddell.
Eric Liddell inspired the movie 'Chariots of Fire', with its iconic opening scene on the seafront at St Andrews. The film tells the story of a man
who put God before the chance of Olympic glory and still won a gold medal. His character is captured brilliantly by the actor Ian Charleson.
Eric Liddell was one of the fastest men in the world in the early 1920s. As the Usain Bolt of his day he was Britain's best hope for the 100m
final at the Paris Olympics. But, there was a problem, the qualifying heats were to be run on a Sunday. As the son of a Christian missionary,
Eric Liddell would not compete on the Sabbath. For him, it was non-negotiable.
Eric Liddell Charity
He pulled out of what should have been the race of his life, Eric Liddell is as famous for the race he refused to run as for the race that won
him Olympic gold. But it wasn't just in Paris in 1924 that he put principle before personal ambition. That's how Eric Liddell lived his life.
He lived a few years of that life in Scotland's capital city. These days, Edinburgh is home to a Christian charity founded in his honour they care
for the elderly and look after an archive that illuminates the life of the man. These are toys Eric Liddell played with as a child, more than a century
They are of oriental origin and so was Eric. This great son of Scotland started life 5,000 miles from his homeland. He was born to Scottish missionary
parents in conflict ridden China in 1902. To find out more about that childhood, I spoke to his biographer, who is also a colleague.
Sally Magnusson "At the time that Eric was born, China was just recovering from the Boxer Rebellion, which was an uprising basically against
foreigners and foreign intervention during which hundreds of Western missionaries were quite casually slaughtered. In the face of that, these
missionaries, like Eric's father James Liddell, continued to go right into the centre of it and work with the Chinese people."
It was to this dangerous work that Eric would dedicate his own life, bringing education, healthcare and the Bible to the Chinese people.
First he had to acquire an education of his own. For that, six-year-old Eric and older brother Rob was sent to boarding school in England. It was at
Eltham College that the Liddell boys learned to love sport.
Speaking with some college runners, do you look up to him?
Fraser Arnott "He's quite a well-known figure around the world. So it's nice that you are part of school where he's been. I think we do. Our school
maintains strong cultural links with China because of Eric Liddell."
Joe Selley "Our school does also maintain quite strong cultural links with China because Eric Liddell grew up in what is now Tianjin in China. We
have a link with a school there and so we maintain contact with them as part of our heritage from Eric Liddell."
Paul Henderson, Headmaster "He played all sorts of sports, he was very keen on rugby and went on to play for Scotland. But, sports day as well
was very big for him. And we know that then 1918, he and his brother more or less carried off the first and second prizes in most of the running
University Rugby Team
Eric's rugby career continued to flourish at Edinburgh University. As a science undergraduate he was repeatedly capped for
the Scottish international side. He gave it all up to concentrate on his running, even if he looked a most unlikely sprint champion.
Sally Magnusson "He had this tremendously ungainly style and sort of ran like this. You would look at him and think how is that going to
propel this man. But, he used that style to get into the finishing line faster than everybody else."
Liddell's legend lit the flame of Olympic ambition in another great Scottish sprinter, so who better to assess his running style.
Alan Wells "I had a chance to see it today and, to be honest. It's inefficient. In some ways I see some similarities with the arm action
with the East Germans when they used to run, certainly of one or two of the women. Maybe it wasn't that bad, but his legs, technically
he wasn't driving off the back. Because he wasn't driving off the back, his hips were law. It tells you that there was quite a bit more
there, I think. But he wasn't the most athletic person to look at either."
Eric Liddell Sculpture
This sculpture at Edinburgh University captures Eric in full flight. He may not have been the most streamlined runner, but having arms
like windmills never held him back. The only thing that stopped him competing was his own clear-cut religious conviction. Eric would not
run on a Sunday, amen.
It's hard to imagine another athlete taking the same stand today. Eric's eldest daughter is convinced that it was only decision that her father could have made.
Patricia Liddell Russell
Patricia Liddell Russell "He used to say, well, I'm not setting rules for other people. These are my rules and I'm not going to do it. And, he
certainly wasn't going to give up his principles, for the gold medal. I, really, firmly believe that if under some big circumstance he had been
convinced to run on a Sunday, I don't think he would have got the gold. I think it would have been ashes in his mouth. The passion for the race
would have gone."
News of Eric's decision caused a sensation. Walking away from his best chance of an Olympic medal may not have been a difficult decision
for Eric Liddell but, it shocked his peers, the public and the press. And a critical crowd of reporters came to his door here at Edinburgh
University to confront him. Eric's flatmate at that time recalled the backlash in an earlier BBC interview.
Greville Young "I remember very well how they came to George Square, the hostel where we were together will stop the hammer on the door,
demanding to see him. On one occasion it was my job to go down and tried to clear them off. At that time, they were quite menacing almost
and there were cries of he's a traitor to his country"
Eric's firm stand for his faith was widely misunderstood. His sacrifice mistaken for selflessness. Despite the criticism, he continued to
train, pending the path opposite his university flat. He wouldn't compromise his principles to please the crowd. Instead he switched distance.
He put all he had into proving himself as a 400 m runner. And, it paid off.
Proving himself as a 400m man. Eric's performance in Paris was world beating. Here in the University's display cabinets is the evidence. The
gold plating might have worn off, but this is an Olympic gold for the 400m and it says along the side 'won by EH Liddell'. But, not only that
he, also picked up the bronze for the 200m. These weren't his best distances and neither of these was he expected to win.
400m Gold Medal
Alan Wells "He was able to convert from a 100 m sprinter to 400 m man. You can do that in a year. You can't do that in a couple of years
maybe, but maybe three years you could probably do justice to it, but for him to do it in such a short period of time was exceptional. It
would be exceptional, I'm talking about nowadays. It would be exceptional nowadays."
Alan Liddell "I believe that God made me for a purpose. But he also made be fast. I'm going to run."
Lord Puttnam "Eric, clearly, was about heart. Stylistically Eric was a terrible runner, but, it was about heart. Every now and then
you watch a race and every now and then as an athlete he goes just beyond being stylistically or well trained, you know he is running purely
on guts. Eric, I think, was a guts runner."
Whatever drove him to victory, he came home an Olympic hero, within a week he was carried shoulder high in Edinburgh on his graduation
day. His newfound celebrity attracted large crowds to hear him speak at religious meetings. Eric Liddell aged 22, had the world at his feet.
||The Flying Scotsman -
||Something Greater than Gold -
Geoff & Janet Benge