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Eric Liddell: Edinburgh’s Olympian

4th Aug 2016
Eric Liddell: Edinburgh’s Olympian

Sitting on a junction in Morningside’s Holy Corner is an imposing church building. Now called the Eric Liddell Centre, it hosts a range of community based activities, all in the name of one of the most memorable Olympians to run for Great Britain. As the Rio Olympics gain pace, let’s look back at a remarkable man, still making his mark in Edinburgh’s suburbs.

Eric Liddell was the son of a missionary, born in China in 1902, sent back to England to attend boarding school. In 1920 made his way to Edinburgh to study Pure Science at Edinburgh University, making his home here for nigh on a decade. Not only was he an intellect, (after gaining his BSc he went on to study Theology) his sporting prowess was legendary. Although best known as a sprinter, he also played rugby for Scotland; two disciplines that wouldn’t be seen together often in professional sportsmen today. He is best known however for his involvement in the 1924 Paris Olympic Games. Being a devout Christian, on finding the final of the 100 metres sprint was to be held on a Sunday, he refused to take part. Gold was not to evade him however; a few days later he competed in the 400 metres final and came first. If this story sounds familiar you may have seen the 1981 film Chariots of Fire, based on the story of the events of the Olympics 92 years ago.

What is less known about Eric Liddell is just how remarkable his life was after Olympic victory. He returned to China as a missionary, eventually becoming caught up in the outbreak of the Second Sino-Japanese War. He smuggled food through Japanese lines to feed Chinese villagers mixed up in the fighting, and eventually found himself imprisoned in an internment camp in Weishien, China. The camp residents were mainly children and he immediately set to work. Spending his half his time teaching science lessons and half organising athletics meets as well as teaching the children rounders and basketball. He died of a brain tumour in the camp in 1945, just before the war reached its final, brutal conclusion.

He may only have won a single gold medal, and his running times have long since been eclipsed, but Eric Liddell surely has to stand as one of the most impressive Olympians of all time. As you watch our current day athletes competing, remember the legacy of the man who lived in Edinburgh’s Morningside.

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