Eric Liddell was a committed Protestant Christian.
Because the heats of the 100m sprint was held on Sunday, he withdrew from the race – a race considered to be his strongest. Instead he concentrated on the 400 metres as the race schedule didn’t involve a Sunday.
Liddell was considered to be a strong favourite for the race.
Before the final the US Olympic masseur slipped a piece of paper into his hand. It included the words from the Bible 1 Samuel 2:30 “Those who honour me I will honour”.
Sprinting from the start, Liddell created 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’s running style was unorthodox.
Towards the end of the race he would fling his head back, with mouth wide open appearing to gasp for breath.
A few days earlier Liddell had competed in the 200 metre finals, for which he received the bronze medal behind Americans Jackson Scholz and Charles Paddock, beating British rival and teammate Harold Abrahams, who finished in sixth place.This was the second and last race in which these two runners met.
Liddell returned to Northern China to serve as a missionary, like his parents, from 1925 to 1943 – first in Tianjin and later in the town of Xiaozhang, Zaoqiang County, Hengshui, Hebei province, an extremely poor area that had suffered during the country’s civil wars and had become a particularly treacherous battleground with the invading Japanese.
During his time in China as a missionary, Liddell continued to compete sporadically, including wins over members of the 1928 French and Japanese Olympic teams in the 200 and 400 metres at the South Manchurian Railway celebrations in China in 1928 and a victory at the 1930 North China championship.
He returned to Scotland only twice, in 1932 and again in 1939.
On one occasion he was asked if he ever regretted his decision to leave behind the fame and glory of athletics. Liddell responded, “It’s natural for a chap to think over all that sometimes, but I’m glad I’m at the work I’m engaged in now. A fellow’s life counts for far more at this than the other.“
Liddell’s first job as a missionary was as a teacher at an Anglo-Chinese College (grades 1–12) for wealthy Chinese students.
While he is best known for athletics, his true passion was found in his missionary work. It was believed that by teaching the children of the wealthy, they would become influential figures in China and promote Christian values.
Liddell used his athletic experience to train boys in a number of different sports. One of his many responsibilities was that of superintendent of the Sunday school at Union Church where his father was pastor.
Liddell lived at 38 Chongqing Dao (formerly known as Cambridge Road) in Tianjin, where a plaque commemorates his residence. He also helped build the Minyuan Stadium in Tianjin.
As fighting between the Chinese Eighth Route Army and invading Japanese reached Xiaozhang, the Japanese took over the mission station and Liddell returned to Tianjin. In 1943, he was interned at the Weihsien Internment Camp (in the modern city of Weifang) with the members of the China Inland Mission, Chefoo School(in the city now known as Yantai), and many others.
In 1941, the advancing Japanese army pressed Liddell and his family to flee to a rural mission station. Liddell was kept very busy dealing with the stream of locals who came to the station for medical treatment and food.
In 1943, the Japanese reached the mission statement and Liddell was interned. Aggravated by the shortage of food and medical treatment, Liddell developed a brain tumour and died five months before liberation.
Many camp internee’s attest 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.
In “The Courtyard of the Happy Way“, Norman Cliff, wrote Liddell
“the finest Christian gentleman it has been my pleasure to meet. In all the time in the camp, I never heard him say a bad word about anybody”.
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.”
Eric Liddell died on 21 February 1945, five months before liberation.
He died from an inoperable brain tumour – though overwork and malnutrition undoubtedly hastened his death.
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 women.
His death left a profound vacuum within the camp – such was the strength of his personality and character.