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July 11 Eric Liddell the Flying Scotsman

Today we remember how the Scottish Missionary Eric Liddell won the Olympic 400-meter race in Paris after he had rejected an opportunity to run in the 100 meter race because its heats were on a Sunday.


Winning the 400m he sprinted from the start, creating a significant gap to the other runners and held onto win gold and set a new Olympic record time of 47.6 seconds. He described his race plan: “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. Liddell was a very committed Christian, having been born in China to missionary parents. At the age of six, he was sent back to Britain and enrolled in Eltham College, a boarding school in south London for the sons of missionaries. He was soon noticed as an outstanding athlete, and became captain of both the cricket and rugby union teams. In spite of his prowess, his headmaster, George Robertson, described him as being "entirely without vanity." Going to university in Edinburgh, Liddell became well known for being the fastest runner in Scotland and earned the nickname the Flying Scotsman.

The schedule for the Parisian Olympics, had been published several months earlier, so his decision not to run on a Sunday was made well before the Games even though the 100-metre race, his best event.. On the morning of the Olympic 400-metre final, 11 July 1924 he was handed a folded square of paper by one of the US team masseurs. It read "In the old book it says: 'He that honours me I will honour.' Wishing you the best of success always." A reference to the Old Testament passage 1 Samuel 2:30, it pleased Liddell as his stand was a controversial one. His performance in the 400-metre race in Paris stood as a European record for 12 years, and a few days earlier Liddell had competed in the 200-metre finals, for which he received the bronze medal behind two Americans. His refusal to compete on Sunday meant he had also missed the Olympic 4 x 400-meter relay, in which Britain finished third.

After winning the Olympics he would return to China to work as a missionary and married a Canadian missionary and had three daughters Patricia, Heather and Maureen. He taught at the prestigious Anglo-Chinese College and was superintendent of the Sunday school at Union Church where his father was pastor. The school where Liddell taught is still in use today. One of his daughters visited Tianjin in 1991 and presented the headmaster of the school with one of the medals that Liddell had won for athletics. Because of his birth and death in China, some of that country's Olympic literature lists Liddell as China's first Olympic champion

During his first furlough from missionary work, he was ordained a minister of the Congregational Union of Scotland. Returning to China he found that life had become riskier, because of Japanese aggression. China and Japan are geographically separated only by a relatively narrow stretch of ocean. When Western countries forced Japan to open trading in the mid-19th century, Japan moved towards modernization (Meiji Restoration), viewing China as an antiquated civilization, unable to defend itself against Western forces in part due to the First and Second Opium Wars and the Boxer Rebellion (see pod of July 1). Japan would invade during this period frequently and the British government advised British nationals to leave. His wife and children returned to Canada, and Liddell accepted a position at a rural mission station which served the poor. He joined his brother, Rob, who was a doctor there. In 1943, the Japanese reached the mission station and he was interned. Under harsh conditions, many internees attested to the strong moral character of Liddell. He was seen as a great unifying force and helped to ease tensions through his selflessness and impartiality. A fellow internee, Stephen Metcalfe, later wrote of Liddell: “He gave me two things. One was his worn out running shoes, but the best thing he gave me was his baton of forgiveness. He taught me to love my enemies, the Japanese, and to pray for them.

He died on 21 February 1945, five months before liberation from an inoperable brain tumour – and it was revealed after the war that Liddell had turned down an opportunity to leave the camp (as part of a prisoner exchange program), preferring instead to give his place to a pregnant woman. In 1981 the film Chariots of Fire chronicled and contrasted the lives of Eric Liddell and British-Jewish athlete Harold Abrahams who ran to overcome prejudice. It would win four Oscars including the soundtrack by Vangelis


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