Eric Liddell: Champion Athlete

Updated Mar 29, 2023
Eric Liddell: Champion Athlete

"In many ways Liddell was the kind of person who, in my heart of hearts, I'd always dreamed of being. . . . Few lives have more to teach us about the virtues of honor and probity."-- Sir David Puttnam, producer of Chariots of Fire

Eric crouched ready to run. Along with the world's best runners, he was in Paris on July 11, 1924, competing for gold. His chances looked slim. The 400 meters was not his strongest race.

If you've seen the movie Chariots of Fire, you may have thrilled at Eric Liddell's stand for principle. It almost cost him his chance at Olympic gold because the 100 meters was his best race. He dropped out of that event, however, rather than run on Sunday.

Instead, he spoke in a Paris church on the day he might have run. The starting guns popped in the stadium without him. Nevertheless, Eric captured an unexpected bronze in the 200 meter and worked his way through the qualifying heats for the 400 meter. His trial times were not spectacular. It did not seem he could beat the other fine contenders.
Defeat or victory, however, he would accept it. He had told the crowds who came to hear him speak that he did not ever question what God chose to do. "I don’t need explanations from God. I simply believe him and accept whatever comes my way."

World Record in His Worst Event

The gun cracked. Eric was out of his crouch and running, head tilted back, arms flailing. If this had been a sprint, he could not have flown faster. When the finish tape drew taut across his chest, he was five meters ahead of his nearest rival. Eric had won the gold in a record 47.6 seconds!

All of Life Is a Race

For Eric Liddell, however, this was not the ultimate race. The son of Scottish missionaries to China, he saw his whole life as a race: a race for the kingdom of heaven. That is why, two years after taking the Olympic gold, he sailed to China, to become a missionary himself. Having seen the Chinese need for science education, he had devoted himself to science studies at Edinburgh. In China he became a teacher at the Anglo-Chinese school at Tientsin [Tin-sen].

Might this Be Love?

One of the girls attending the school was Florence McKenzie. Eric often borrowed pencils from her classroom and invited her out with his whole Sunday school class. She was just seventeen when he proposed. She accepted, but they did not see each other for three years when she sailed to Canada to attend nursing school.

The two were finally married in March, 1934. They were the happy parents of two daughters, Patricia and Heather when the Japanese moved to gain total control of China in 1937.

Eventually, afraid that his daughters might be taken as hostages, forcing compromises on him, Eric asked Flo to take the girls to Canada. He felt it was his duty to remain in China. By then (1941), they had a third daughter (Maureen) on the way. They parted, hoping to meet again as soon as the Japanese conflict with China was resolved.

Into a Prison Camp

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor brought the United States into the war. Japan rounded up all foreign nationals; among them was Eric. They were held at Weihsien [way-shin] in what had formerly been a mission school. Its heat and plumbing had been ripped out, making conditions primitive.

At Weihsien, Eric proved himself a true champion. Although he missed his family badly and was distressed that he had never seen his third daughter, he busied himself helping others. He carried water for the sick and elderly, arranged games, taught Bible classes and grounded youngsters in chemistry with a textbook hand-written from memory.
Those who knew him during those bleak months said that he truly lived out Christ's Sermon on the Mount.

Doomed by Deadly Headaches

Eric was not one to complain. Few people knew that he was having crushing headaches. He continued his efforts to smile and make the camp a better place despite increasing physical difficulties. Eric was still running his race when he collapsed. He died on February 21, 1945 of a brain tumor and typhoid in the Japanese camp just a few months before World War II ended.

The Most Difficult Decision of His Life

"I need your help, Eric." There was quiet appeal in Evangelist D. P. Thomson's voice. "Not many men come out to our meetings. I think they would come if they knew you were going to speak."

Because he was shy, Eric did not like to speak in public. But he did not mention this to D. P. Thomson. He studied his feet for a couple moments, then looked up and said, "Yes."

That's how he wound up speaking for the Student Led Evangelistic Campaign. He didn't scold his listeners for doing wrong. Instead, he spoke of his personal experiences of God's love and support.

Eric was not a great speaker, but the sincerity of his testimony made him effective. Later he told an audience that taking up D.P's offer was the hardest decision he made in his life.

Family Matters

- Eric was so fast, his daughter Patricia actually witnessed him chase down and catch a rabbit for rabbit pie during the period of war rationing.

- In order to get time with Florence, Eric stopped by his parents' home on Thursday evenings for a meal -- which happened to be the evening she took piano lessons from his sister Jenny. No one caught on until after they announced their engagement.

- On their way to Siaochang [Shau-shong] during the Sino-Japanese war, Eric and his older brother Rob were robbed and also held captive by bandits.

- While in prison camp, Eric and a few other men read the Bible early in the morning by a lamp fueled with peanut oil.

Fascinating Facts from the Champ's Scrapbook

- Eric entered Edinburgh University in 1920 and won his first College-level race in his freshman year against the school’s finest sprinter. As he piled up victories, he began to be considered an Olympics contender.

- The pace he put himself through to get to the Olympics is amazing. In the Spring of 1924, in addition to training three times a week for the Olympics, he attended classes, completed a grueling round of final exams, led a young people’s group at Morningside Congregational Church, and spoke at meetings. He also competed in the Pennsylvania University relays.

- In the six weeks before the Summer games, he ran in eight track meets.

- The competitive spirit that sustained him in these heroic efforts showed itself long before the Olympics, of course. Before flying tackles were made illegal in Rugby Football, he broke his collarbone twice making such plays.

- His competitive spirit did not end when he won the Olympic gold. In his final college races, two years after Paris, he took a triple triumph, winning the 100, 200 and 400 meters. Classmates pulled him in triumph through the streets in a carriage when he left Edinburgh for China.

- Eric was not favored at all in the 400 meter sprint at the 1924 Paris Olympics. In fact, his victory was considered a stunning upset.

- Going into that race, the record for the 400 meters was 48.2 seconds. In a qualifying heat on July 10th, the day before the big race, J. Imbach of Switzerland set a new record of 48 seconds flat. In the semi-final run on Friday morning, July 11th, Horatio M. Fitch of Chicago broke the record again, bringing the time down to 47.8 seconds.

- Everyone expected the 400-meter race to be a battle between Imbach and Fitch. Shortly after the gun fired, however, Eric took a lead that he never relinquished. When he broke the tape at 47.6 seconds, the Olympic record for the 400 meters had been shattered three times in twenty-four hours.

- Fitch finished a strong second to Eric, but Imbach did not place, having tripped on a lane rope and fallen to the track


1. Brooke, Tal. “Running to Win.” an SCP Report.

2. Chariots of Fire. [Videorecording] Warner Home Video, 1981.

3. "China." Encyclopedia Americana.

4. Henry, Bill. An Approved History of the Olympics. New York: Putnam, 1976.

5. Kieran, John and Daley, Arthur. The Story of the Olympic Games, 776 B. C. to 1956 A. D. Philadelphia: J. P. Lippincott, 1957.

6. "Liddell, Eric." Encyclopedia Britannica.

7. Michell, David J. "Chariots of Fire." chariots_of_fire.htm

8. The Story of Eric Liddell. [Videorecording] A Day of Discovery Television Production.

9. Weyand, Alexander M. Olympic Pageant. MacMillan, 1952.

(Article first published on on April 28, 2010)

Further Reading:

Eric Liddell: Finishing the Race

What Makes Men Great? The Eric Liddell Story

Eric Liddell: Greater than Gold

Photo Credit: Getty Images/PeopleImages

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