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16 October 2014

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Athletics

Eric Liddell

He faced a strong field in that distance, in particular from the American team, one of whom, Jackson Schulz, has bested Liddell in the 200m, and had also to contend with some negative press from some quarters of the British camp, who could not understand his placing God above winning a medal for the King. Liddell was to some extent even helped by the American attitude, as their coach had instructed their runners not to worry about the Scot, who he was sure would burn out after 200m.

Liddell, however, was ready for the challenge, and, after sportingly shaking the hands of each of his competitors, the "Flying Scotsman" was off. An impeccable run saw the Scot not only collecting gold by a margin of some six metres, but also seting a world record of 47.6 seconds in the process.

Eric Liddell breaks the tape

© Hulton Getty

Perhaps Liddell's own words can best describe how he came to triumph on that day in Paris "The secret of my success over the 400m is that I run the first 200m as fast as I can. Then, for the second 200m, with God's help I run faster."

Many aspects of the film Chariots of Fire were mythologised: Liddell knew that the 100m heats would be on a Sunday six months before the race, and in fact it was Liddell who introduced Harold Abrahams to professional trainer Sam Mussabini.

However, this should not detract from Liddell's achievement - to win in a race at a distance you are not familiar with is no mean feat, to do it to win Olympic Gold something else again, and to set a world record in the process raises the feat to the incredible.

After his Olympic triumph Liddell threw himself headlong into missionary work, returning to China in 1925, to Tientsin, where he was ordained a minister in 1932. He married Florence Mackenzie two years later, with whom he had three daughters. With the Japanese invasion of China in 1937, Eric was now in Siaochang - occupied territory. In 1941 the British Government advised all British nationals in China to leave and Eric's family moved to Canada, while Liddell himself remained in China. In 1943 Liddell was interned by the Japanese authorities in a camp at Weishien.

Life in the internment camp was hard, under a brutal regime. Some inmates, mainly oil company executives, managed to bribe the guards into receiving extra rations and luxury goods. Liddell shamed them into sharing these with the rest of the camp inmates. Liddell also, for the first time in his life, indulged in sporting activity on Sundays, refereeing football matches in the camp.

Unfortunately, Liddell was not destined to survive the war. He suffered a brain tumour shortly before the war's end, and died in the camp.

Upon his death, Liddell's grave was marked by a simple wooden cross, with his name written on it in boot polish. However, the site was identified many years later, and Edinburgh University erected a stone of Mull granite there in 1991. However, perhaps a tribute that Liddell himself would have more appreciated, was the setting up of the Eric Liddell centre in the old North Morningside Church at "Holy Corner" in Edinburgh

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