50 stunning Olympic moments: No8 Eric Liddell's 400 metres win, 1924

A true amateur, the Scot never intended to fill more than a few years in athletics before he was ready to become a missionary. Click here for a gallery of his achievement

Little could better emphasise the extent to which the Olympics has changed since its inception than the story of Eric Liddell, 1924 gold medallist and inspiration for the Oscar-winning film Chariots of Fire. A true amateur, he never intended sport to fill more than a few years of his youth before he was ready to become a missionary.

He ran his first race for his Edinburgh athletics club in 1921. He made his first appearance outside Scotland in 1923. He ran his final competitive race in 1925. In those four years he completed a degree in pure science, became a religious speaker of national renown, won two Olympic medals and seven caps for his country at rugby union, where he became a first-choice wing three-quarter before forsaking the sport in 1923 to concentrate on athletics.

His sporting success was achieved despite a running style that even Paula Radcliffe would consider ungainly. “He is remembered among lovers of athletics as probably the ugliest runner who ever won an Olympic championship,” wrote the Guardian when reporting his death in 1945. “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.”

But Harold Abrahams, who in 1924 won the 100m gold medal – the event Liddell famously refused to compete in because the preliminary heats were held on a Sunday – surmised: “People may shout their heads off about his appalling style. Well, let them. He gets there.”

In Stoke on Trent in July 1923, in a race run over a quarter of a mile, England saw just how true this was. At the first bend he tripped over the legs of the English runner JJ Gillies, falling off the track. By the time he was back on his feet the last of the other runners was 30 yards away and moving fast but Liddell attacked them with such pace that he finally overtook Gillies three yards from the line to win before collapsing, spent, to the ground. “The circumstances in which Liddell won the event made it a performance bordering on the miraculous,” wrote The Scotsman. “Veterans, whose memories take them back 35 years, and in some cases even longer, in the history of athletics, were unanimous in the opinion that Liddell’s win in the quarter-mile was the greatest ever track performance that they had ever seen.”

But, as the Guardian was to report, “Liddell has already decided that the race he has chiefly to run in the world is not on the cinder track”. And so it was that on 6 July 1924, while Abrahams was easing through the first two rounds of the Olympic 100m, Liddell was delivering the weekly sermon at the Scots Church on Rue Bayard. This was his destiny; his father, James, was a missionary in China; his brother, his sister and his wife were all missionaries. Within a year he would be ready to join them.

His decision to avoid the 100m (and, though it is much more frequently forgotten, the 4x400m relay, in which Britain came only third without his assistance – with Liddell in the team they beat the gold-medal-winning Americans a week later) was criticised in the press and even in parliament but his decision was absolute. “I object to Sunday sport in toto,” he said.

So Liddell’s second appearance at the Olympic Stadium in Colombes (he made his international rugby debut there) came on the Tuesday, when he eased through the first two rounds of the 200m. The following day he progressed through the semi-final and came third in the final, some way behind the Americans Jackson Scholz and Charles Paddock. Abrahams finished sixth, having also competed that day in the long jump. “The effort,” wrote the Guardian, “was more than he could stand.”

Abrahams’ fatigue was understandable. Paris was struck in the summer of 1924 by a crippling heatwave, with temperatures regularly exceeding 40°C. Obviously this most affected the long-distance events – just 15 of the 39 starters in the 10,000m cross-country completed the race and four ambulances were required to collect the 12 unconscious athletes whose bodies littered the route. The Frenchman Marschal, one of the few to reach the stadium itself for the final lap, collapsed with 50 yards to go. “He made a tremendous effort to regain his feet,” reported the Guardian, “actually sprinting a dozen yards, when his arms went up, his body spun like a top and he fell unconscious.”

These conditions did not help Liddell’s tactics for the 400m, which he summed up thus: “I run the first 200m as hard as I can. Then, for the second 200m, with God’s help, I run harder.” He had trained seriously for the distance only after discovering in January – not, as suggested in Chariots of Fire, while already on his way to Paris – the scheduling issue with the shortest sprint event and, despite that heroic performance in Stoke, he was not widely considered a serious challenger.

He eased through his heat on 10 July and safely negotiated the following day’s semi-final (which was preceded, for some reason, by the performance of a Scottish air by the pipers of the Cameron Highlanders), but the draw for the final a few hours later represented another blow: he was given the outside lane. Unable to see his rivals, he was left with little option but simply to peg it as fast as he could for as long as he could.

Liddell started well and covered the first 200m in 22.2sec. Just inside him in lane five was Horatio Fitch, who had broken the world record in the semi-final and was America’s gold-medal hope. “I couldn’t believe a man could set such a pace and finish,” he said. “But Liddell pushed himself like a man possessed. He didn’t weaken. With the tape only 20 yards away I again spurted closer but Liddell threw his head farther back, gathered himself together and shot forward.”

Fitch was to come second, 0.8sec behind the Flying Scotsman. Britain’s Guy Butler finished third, before saying: “He seemed to us, his opponents, to be tackling the whole distance in an all-out sprint.”

“There was a gasp of astonishment when Liddell was seen to be a clear three yards ahead of the field at the half distance,” reported the Press Association. “Nearer the tape Fitch and Butler strained every nerve and muscle to overtake him but could make absolutely no impression on the inspired Scot. With head thrown back and chin thrust out in his usual style he flashed past the tape to win what was probably so far the greatest victory of the meeting. Certainly there has not been a more popular win. The crowd went into a frenzy of enthusiasm.”

The Scotsman sprinted through the tape six yards clear of his nearest rival, and his time of 47.6sec was the day’s second world record at the distance.

Liddell returned to Britain a hero and one of his first duties was to attend his graduation ceremony at Edinburgh University. He was crowned by a laurel wreath by the principal, Sir Alfred Ewing. “Mr Liddell,” said Ewing, “you have shown that none could pass you except the examiners.”

He spent a further year in Edinburgh, studying theology and preparing for missionary work in China, the country of his birth. His final race on British soil came less than a year after the Olympics, in June 1925, when he won the 100 yards, the 220 yards and the quarter-mile events at the Scottish Amateur Championships at Hampden Park. A few weeks later hundreds of well-wishers turned up at Waverley Station as he began his journey to China. Asked to deliver a speech, Liddell simply led the crowd in a rendition of the hymn Jesus Shall Reign Where’er The Sun.

Liddell taught science at the Anglo-Christian College in Tientsin, the city where his father had been based before him and where he had been born. He must have kept himself fit as three years after his arrival he beat the best sprinters in the French and Japanese Olympic teams, who were touring the country, and in 1929 he raced the German star Otto Peltzer, the European 1500m record-holder and recently deposed world 800m record holder, and beat him over 400m before losing narrowly over 800m. “If you train for 800m you will be the greatest man in the world at that distance,” Peltzer said.

He returned to Scotland a couple of times, in 1931 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. “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,” Liddell said. “A fellow’s life counts for far more at this than the other.”

By then he was based in Xiaochang, a poor area that had suffered during the country’s civil wars and had become a particularly treacherous battleground with the invading Japanese. It did not stop him from returning, although he sent his pregnant wife and two daughters to safety in her native Canada.

Once Japan entered the second world war Liddell and other westerners had their freedom of movement restricted, and in 1943 he and a couple of thousand others were interned at a camp in Weihsien. There he established a school and took charge of the children’s recreation, organising sporting activities and creating or mending equipment. He was even said to have broken a habit of a lifetime by engaging in sporting activity on Sundays, refereeing childrens’ football matches. On one occasion Liddell was given a chance to leave the camp through an exchange arrangement made by Winston Churchill, but he instead arranged for a pregnant woman to take his place.

Langdon Gilkey, who survived the camp and became a prominent theologian in his native America, said of Liddell: “Often in an evening I would see him bent over a chessboard or a model boat, or directing some sort of square dance – absorbed, weary and interested, pouring all of himself into this effort to capture the imagination of these penned-up youths. He was overflowing with good humour and love for life, and with enthusiasm and charm. 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.”

Early in 1945, six months before the camp’s liberation, Liddell became ill. In a letter he told his wife that he feared he was having a nervous breakdown. In fact it was a brain tumour, untreatable in those circumstances, and on 21 February he died.

He was buried in the garden behind the Japanese officers’ quarters, his grave marked by a small wooden cross. The site was forgotten until it was rediscovered in 1989, in the grounds of what is now Weifeng Middle School. A gravestone, made of red granite from the Isle of Mull and carved by a mason in Tobermory, was placed near the site in 1991.

For a man whose athletics career was so brief and is now so distant, Liddell continues to cast a lengthy shadow. It took until 2004 for another China-born athlete to win a gold medal on the track, and until 1980 for another Scot to do so. After that race, Allan Wells having won the 100m title that Liddell was denied by an accident of scheduling, the victor simply said: “That one’s for Eric Liddell.”

What the Guardian said: 12 July 1924

E. H. Liddell, the Edinburgh University sprinter, won the 400 metres final in the world’s record time of 47 3.5sec., after what was perhaps the greatest quarter-mile race ever run. The British champion, who, on the outside track, leaped ahead at the crack of the pistol, was never caught. He ran each of the three first hundred metres in 12sec dead and the fourth in 11 3.5 sec. Fitch, the American, finished second, three yards behind Liddell beating Butler by a few inches on the tape. Johnson (Canada) was fourth and Taylor, another American, fifth. Imbach, who broke the former world’s record yesterday, caught his foot in the ropes and fell heavily a few yards from the finish when level with Johnson and Taylor.

The victory was most popular with the crowd. Liddell’s refusal to run in the preliminary heats of the 100 metres last Sunday because of religious scruples aroused considerable curiosity, which was heightened when it was learned that he will preach in the Scotch church on Sunday. The public here are not accustomed to the idea of a man in holy orders being an athlete, and his splendid win was loudly cheered.

This victory gives Great Britain world supremacy in the three most important foot races, the 100, 400, and 800 metres, all of which the Americans were confident of winning.

The Press Association special correspondent says:

The race was the one bright spot in the afternoon’s sport, for with nothing to applaud the crowd had sunk into more or less apathy. Suddenly the pipers of the Cameron Highlanders, who had assembled in the middle of the stadium, began playing, and the crowd broke into cheers at the lively strains of a Scotch air. It was time for the 400 metres semi-finals, the first of which was a thrilling race.

However, the final was even more thrilling. There was a gasp of astonishment when Eric Liddell, one of the most popular athletes at Colombes, was seen to be a clear three yards ahead of the field at half distance. Nearing the tape Fitch and Butler strained every nerve and muscle to overtake him but could make absolutely no impression on the inspired Scot. With 20 yards to go Fitch seemed to gain a fraction but Liddell appeared to sense the American and with head thrown back and chin thrust out in his usual style he flashed past the tape to win what was probably so far the greatest victory of the meeting. Certainly there has not been a more popular win. The crowd went into a frenzy of enthusiasm.


Simon Burnton

The GuardianTramp

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