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2 September 2014
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Athletics

Eric Liddell

Eric Liddell

© Hulton Getty

Without doubt one of Scotland's greatest sporting heroes, Eric Liddell, owes much of his fame more to a race he didn't run than any he did. However, the uplifting manner in which he lived his life, as portrayed in the film Chariots of Fire, truly marks him as one of the greatest of Scottish heroes.

Eric Henry Liddell, like many Scottish sporting heroes, was not actually born in the country he was to represent with such distinction. Liddell was born on the 16 January 1902 in the city of Tientsin (now Tianjin) in north-eastern China, the son of missionary parents working for the Church of Scotland.

In fact, Liddell was not to find himself living in Scotland unit he entered Edinburgh University in 1920, after 12 years at Eltham College boarding School in Surrey, a school specifically for the children of missionaries. His headmaster at Eltham was to remember Liddell as a boy "entirely without vanity".

When Eric joined his elder brother Rob at Edinburgh it was to study a BSc in Pure Science. However, test tubes and beakers were never to provide anything like the stimulus that pulled the young Eric in two differing directions - a missionary zeal and an intense talent for sport - both of which were to radically shape the destiny of this young man.

At first, Liddell seemed destined for a career with the oval ball, displaying enough talent at wing three quarter to win seven international caps between 1921 and 1923. Indeed, it is interesting to speculate that Liddell could also have appeared in this website as a member of the 1925 Grand Slam-winning side. However, his life was to follow a different pattern, as, realising there was not time enough in the day for both sports, he chose to concentrate on running – a decision that was to take him to the heights of athletics.

Eric Liddell in the Edinburgh Uni relay team

© SCRAN

In the early 1920s, Liddell established himself as one of the country's top runners, regularly scooping not only the Scottish 100- and 220-yard sprinting tiles, but also in the 440-yard contests, a fact often overlooked later. Liddell was also successful in British competition, winning the shorter sprint distances at the Triangular International Contests in 1921, 1922 and 1923, this competition showcasing athletes from Scotland, England and Ireland.

This success made Liddell a dead cert for inclusion in the British Olympic squad which set sail for Paris in 1924, and although he was strongly fancied as a contender in the 100 metres event, he was not destined to race in this, his strongest event.

Due to his religious principles, Liddell refused to run in the 100m heats, which were held on a Sunday (Liddell instead spent that particular Sabbath preaching in the Scots Church in Paris). Instead, the Scot elected to run in 400 metres, a distance in which he was a good performer, but certainly not his forte.

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