April 01, 2015

On & Off the Track: Eric Liddell

Stephen Nichols
On & Off the Track: Eric Liddell


Eric Liddell was an early Olympic star, known as "the Flying Scotsman." He is famous for his feats on the track at the 1924 Paris Olympics. But he also lived an interesting life off the track.

Though he was Scottish, Liddell was actually born in China in 1902, and he would die there in 1945. His parents were missionaries and Scottish Presbyterians; his father was a doctor and did medical missionary work. When Liddell was a young man, he was sent back to Scotland for boarding school, and he later attended university in Scotland. At university, he excelled both in his studies (with a focus on the sciences) and in athletics. Rugby and sprinting were his two main sports, and he was quite the force at 100 meters and at 200 meters.

It was clear early on that Liddell was destined for the Olympics, and he set his sights on Paris in 1924. However, a scheduling issue meant that he would not compete in the 100, his best event. The first heat in that distance was set for a Sunday, and Liddell, as a devout Scottish Presbyterian, would not run on the Sabbath.

So, Liddell trained for and competed in the 400 meters as well as the 200 meters. In the 200, he earned a bronze. But to everyone's surprise, in the 400—a middle-distance race, as opposed to the sprint distances in which he specialized—Liddell won gold.

In fact, one of the newspapers said, not only was Liddell's 400-meter win a surprise, it was also quite the spectacle. He had an unusual running style; he would throw his head back and flail his arms as if he were hurling himself down the track. One newspaper said, "He is remembered . . . as probably the ugliest runner who ever won an Olympic championship."

Off the track, his life was also fascinating. The year after the Olympics, he left Scotland and went to China. He could have stayed in Scotland, of course; he was well known and could have entered into any career. But he wanted to go back to China and serve as a missionary. He was there for twenty years, until his death in 1945.

He had a variety of roles as a missionary, including as a teacher to first- and second-grade Chinese children. These were children of wealthy Chinese businessmen and government officials. Liddell recognized that these children would very likely go on to have positions of influence themselves, and so he saw it as a great responsibility to try not only to teach them but also to see them come to Christ and to train them up in the gospel. In addition to being a teacher, he was also superintendent of the Sunday school and, of course, he trained his young charges in all varieties of sports and athletics.

During World War II, the Japanese invaded China. They interned the Westerners, including the missionaries. Liddell had plenty of warning, and he did manage to get his family to safety, but he decided to stay behind and was imprisoned. He was for all intents and purposes a doctor, having a doctor for a father and having studied the sciences at university, and he was very much practicing medicine through much of his missionary work in China. He thought those skills might be useful to his fellow prisoners in the internment camp, so he decided he would fill one more station as a missionary. But the conditions of the camp were horrible, and the squalor caught Liddell in its grasp. He died in an internment camp on February 21, 1945.

Before Liddell stepped up to the starting block for the 400-meter final at Paris in 1924, a team masseur gave him a slip of paper, and on it were these words from 1 Samuel 2:30: "Those who honor me, I will honor." Eric Liddell sought to live in light of those words.