Eric Liddell (1902-1945) was a Scottish athlete, rugby union international player, and missionary. Almost as famous for the race he didn’t run as the one he won when forced to choose between his religious beliefs and competing in the Paris 1924 Olympic 100 metres. After refusing to run in the heats for his favoured distance the 100 metres due to falling on a Sunday, the Sabbath, Liddell could still compete in the men’s 400 metres at the 1924 Summer Olympics in Paris, which he won. Liddell had also been selected to run as a member of the 4×100 and 4×400 relay teams at the Olympics but also declined these spots as the finals were to be run on a Sunday.
The ‘Flying Scotsman’ excelled at all sports captaining cricket and rugby sides at school and described by his headmaster as entirely without vanity”. He went on to Oxford College and is depicted in the 1981 film Chariots of Fire. He also won seven international rugby caps on the wing.
In the 1945 report of his death The Guardian wrote “He is remembered among lovers of athletics as probably the ugliest runner who ever won an Olympic championship. When he appeared in the heats of the 400m at Paris in 1924 his huge sprawling stride, his head thrown back and his arms clawing the air, moved the Americans and other sophisticated experts to ribald laughter.” Rival Harold Abrahams said in response to criticism of Liddell’s style: “People may shout their heads off about his appalling style. Well, let them. He gets there.”
He gave up athletics to focus on his missionary work. Returning to China, his country of birth, he died at 43 years of age in a Japanese internment camp, 5 months before liberation came due to overwork and malnutrition. According to a fellow missionary, Liddell’s last words were, “It’s complete surrender”, in reference to how he had given his life to his God.
In 2008, just before the Beijing Olympics, Chinese authorities revealed that Liddell had refused an opportunity to leave the camp, and instead gave his place to a pregnant woman. Apparently, the Japanese and British, with Churchill’s approval, had agreed upon a prisoner exchange. News of this final act of sacrifice surprised even his family members.
His time of 9.7 seconds for the 100 yards in 1923 stood as a British record for 35 years. Though racing during the years of the 100 yard dash, I feel that Genuine Pace may award a hypothetical time of 10.4 for the 100m putting him on a par with the fastest Americans of the time.