Eric Liddell: Sportsman and Missionary

Posted by Les Ellison  ·  Be the first to comment


Made famous by the 1981 Oscar-winning film ‘Chariots of Fire’, Eric Liddell stands as the very model of a Christian sportsman.

The whole story of Eric Liddell’s life of service and sacrifice begins and ends among the poor of China where his parents were missionaries for The London Mission Society, and where he was born on 16 January 1902.

"We are all missionaries. Wherever we go we either bring people nearer to Christ or we repel them from Christ." - Eric Liddell

Eric Henry Liddell was born on 16th January 1902 in Tientsin (Tianjin) I North China, second son of the Rev. & Mrs. James Dunlop Liddell who were missionaries with the London Mission Society

Educated from at Blackheath, Eric and older brother Rob were boarders a Eltham College, a school for the sons of missionaries.  The work in China meant they only saw their parents, sister and new brother Ernest two or three times between 1908 and 1920.


Education, faith and mission to students

Eric and Rob studied at Edinburgh University with Eric working for a BSc in Pure Science. Athletics and rugby dominated Eric’s university life, representing Scotland in track events and 7 rugby internationals. Aiming for a place in the British squad set to compete in the 1924 Paris Olympics, Eric dropped rugby to concentrate on his running.

At his University and around Scotland, Liddell became a popular speaker drawing large crowds for the Glasgow Students Evangelical Union. A strong Christian he would take the role of lead speaker for a team of 8 to 10 men on their missions to live, work in a local area and evangelise male audiences.


Chariots of Fire and the 1924 Olympics

The story of the movie ‘Chariots of Fire’ tells how Eric – principally a sprinter, switched from the 100 metre event to the more stamina intensive 400 metre when he found the qualifying rounds for the shorter distance were to run on a Sunday.

"Those who honour me I will honour" – 1 Samuel 2:30

His devotion to the keeping the Sabbath holy also cost him a place in the British 100 and 400 metre relay teams as the heats for both races were also on a Sunday.

With his characteristic head thrown back style he won the gold medal for the longer distance and took bronze in the 200 metres event ahead of his team mate, friend and rival, Harold Abrahams, also characterised in the film.


400m: Unusual Tactics and Success

Allegedly inspired by the verse from 1 Samuel: "Those who honour me I will honour" Liddell broke with accepted practice running the whole 400 metres as a sprint, racing flat out round the final bend and home straight.

Finishing in just 47.6 seconds, he broke the existing Olympic and world records. Eric Liddell’s name stayed on the record books for another 12 years beaten by another British athlete, Godfrey Brown, at the Berlin Olympics in 1936.


Life of Service and Sacrifice

In 1925 Eric Liddell returned to China to serve as a missionary in the footsteps of his parents. Working in a desperately poor area of the country. His first post was teaching Chinese students in the hope that they would go on to promote Christian values in the government of the country.

In Tianjin, Liddell used his athletic experience to train boys in a range of sports and also became superintendent of the Sunday school at his father’s church. In 1932 he took his first leave from the work in China and returned to Scotland be ordained as a minister of religion.


Dangerous Work in Dangerous Times

Back in China he married Florence Mackenzie, daughter of Canadian missionaries. The couple would go on to have 3 daughters: Patricia, Heather and Maureen, the youngest of whom Eric would not live to see.

By 1941 the on-going conflict between China and Japan had made missionary life so dangerous that the British government ordered all British nationals to return to the UK. While Florence and the children left for the safety of Canada, Eric took a post at a mission station in Shaochang to work with his brother and doctor, Rob.


Life and work as a Prisoner of War

In 1943 Japanese forces captured the mission station and imprisoned the foreign staff. With food scarce and conditions harsh, Liddell refused to join the black-market style syndicates acting selfishly to acquire food at the expense of the less powerfully connected.

"It is rare indeed that a person has the good fortune to meet a saint, but he came as close to it as anyone I have ever known." – Langdon Gilkey (about Eric Liddell).

Helping the frail and vulnerable, Eric even shamed the syndicates into sharing their hoarded food with the sick and elderly. Pouring himself into lifting the moral of the young, Liddell taught science and Bible classes, and organised sports and games earning himself the reputation of ‘Uncle Eric’ throughout the prison camp.


Legacy of a Christian Gentleman

Hardship, overwork and malnutrition inevitably took its toll, however, and in his final letter told his wife, Florence, that he had suffered a nervous breakdown. Less than six months before the war with Japan ended, Liddell died of an inoperable brain tumour.

"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." – Norman Cliff (about Eric Liddell).

Not until the 2008 Olympics was the full extent of Eric Liddell’s selfless spirit of sacrifice revealed. Papers released by the Chinese authorities showed that Eric Liddell was to have been part of a humanitarian prisoner exchange. Instead, he gave up his chance of freedom to a pregnant female prisoner.

In 1991, Edinburgh University erected a stone of Mull granite to the memory of Eric Liddell at the site of the prison camp in Shandong, about six hours drive from Beijing. It carries the inscription, “They shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run and not be weary."


Eric Liddell: The Not-So-Trivial Files

In the Oscar winning ‘Chariots of Fire’ Liddell says: ‘God made me fast. And when I run, I feel His pleasure.’ Eric Liddell never said this. The line is entirely Colin Welland’s and part of his script for the film.

Quick Guide to Eric Liddell


  • Life: 16 January 1902 (China) – 21 February 1945. (China) 
  • Beginnings: born to missionary parents in China. Educated at Eltham College, Blackheath and Edinburgh University (pure science). Athlete and international rugby.
  • Family: married Florence Mackenzie, daughter of Canadian missionaries in 1934. 3 daughters: Patricia, Heather and Maureen.
  • Career: as sportsman 1924 Paris Olympic gold medallist: 400m, and bronze medallist: 200m. As missionary in Shandong province, China 1925 – 1943, POW to 1945.
  • Legacy: lasting ideal of a Christian sportsman and missionary in a life based on principle, service and self sacrifice. Central character of Oscar winning film ‘Chariots of Fire.’

Over to You

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Eric Liddell declined sporting success by adhering to his principles and not running in races on a Sunday.

  • Do you think he was justified in refusing those who expected him represent his country?
  • Do you think those principles should apply to Sunday sporting events today?
  • How do you think Eric's stand would affect professional sport, and sport in general?

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27th March

March 27th, 2012 - Posted & Written by Les Ellison

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