Enduring legacy of 'Flying Scotsman' Eric Liddell 100 years on from his Olympic gold in Paris

The impact of the sportsman – remembered as the Flying Scotsman – is still being felt today.

It was 47.6 seconds on an athletics track in Paris that is still remembered exactly 100 years on.

Now, the life and times of Scots sportsman Eric Liddell is being celebrated in Edinburgh this summer to coincide with the anniversary of his unforgettable victory in the 400 metres at the Paris Olympics in July 1924.

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A new exhibition which brings together Liddell’s personal effects and mementos will go on show at the Scottish Parliament’s main hall on July 25.

Eric Liddell's legacy is being celebrated at the Scottish Parliament where the sportsman's life and times are marked in a new exhibition mounted to coincide with the 100th anniversary of his extraordinary win in the 400 metres at the Paris Olympics. PIC: Contributed.Eric Liddell's legacy is being celebrated at the Scottish Parliament where the sportsman's life and times are marked in a new exhibition mounted to coincide with the 100th anniversary of his extraordinary win in the 400 metres at the Paris Olympics. PIC: Contributed.
Eric Liddell's legacy is being celebrated at the Scottish Parliament where the sportsman's life and times are marked in a new exhibition mounted to coincide with the 100th anniversary of his extraordinary win in the 400 metres at the Paris Olympics. PIC: Contributed.

Organisers of ‘Eric Liddell: Legacy of an Olympic legend’ have worked to pay tribute to the man whose physical might was matched with a powerful mindset and a deep sense of ability and self.

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Liddell, who also served as a Christian missionary and whose achievements inspired the film Chariots of Fire, famously switched from the 100m to the 400m race in Paris so he didn’t have to run on a Sunday. Not only did he win the event – but set a new Olympic record which held for 12 years.

The exhibition has been mounted by Eric Liddell 100, an organisation set up to celebrate the legacy of the track star and the values the sportsman held dear. Passion, compassion and integrity apply not just to sport, but to life itself, said John MacMillan, CEO of The Eric Liddell Community.

Eric Liddell famously withdrew from the 100 metres race in Paris given it was being held on a Sunday - and went on to win gold in the 400 metres instead. PIC: Contributed.Eric Liddell famously withdrew from the 100 metres race in Paris given it was being held on a Sunday - and went on to win gold in the 400 metres instead. PIC: Contributed.
Eric Liddell famously withdrew from the 100 metres race in Paris given it was being held on a Sunday - and went on to win gold in the 400 metres instead. PIC: Contributed.

Mr MacMillan said: “We are thrilled to see the launch of the Eric Liddell exhibition today, as part of our exciting programme of events to celebrate the centenary of Eric Liddell’s gold medal win.

"All of our partners involved in this initiative spent a significant amount of time considering what Eric Liddell would have wanted and how important it is that we reflect him in our endeavours; we believe that any individual can make a positive impact on the world if they approach the challenges they face with passion, compassion, and integrity, which are our three values for The Eric Liddell 100.

"We hope everyone who visits the exhibition leaves feeling uplifted, inspired, and motivated to live life with these values in mind.”

Liddell also served as a Christian missionary in China, where he born, married and spent much of his life. PIC: Contributed.Liddell also served as a Christian missionary in China, where he born, married and spent much of his life. PIC: Contributed.
Liddell also served as a Christian missionary in China, where he born, married and spent much of his life. PIC: Contributed.

Liddell was born in Tientsen, China to Scottish parents, both who served as Christian missionaries. Family life was split between China, London and Edinburgh where Liddell and his brother attended university. It was here that his sporting abilities advanced, with Liddell not only making his mark on the track but also the rugby field, where he represented both Edinburgh University and then Scotland in the 1922-23 season, scoring four tries given his sprinter’s speed.

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He was capped for the Scotland international rugby team seven times and was one of a rare few who had his cap reissued. Liddell was inducted into the Scottish Rugby Hall of Fame in January 2022.

Following his Paris success, Liddell returned to China in 1925 to serve as a missionary teacher and remained largely in the Far East, returning to Scotland only twice in 1932 and 1939.

On asked if he ever regretted his decision to leave behind the fame and glory of athletics, he said: “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.”

While in China, he married Florence Mackenzie, daughter of Canadian missionary parents, in 1934. The couple had three daughters, Patricia, Heather and Maureen, but Liddell did not live to see his youngest. After Japan invaded Hong Kong in 1941, the British Government advised nationals to leave China and his wife, then pregnant, and their two daughers left for Canada. Meanwhile, Liddell accepted a position at a rural mission station in Xiaozhang, which served the poor.

As fighting between the Chinese Army and invading Japanese troops reached Xiaozhang, the Japanese took over the mission station with Liddell leaving for Tianjin. His liberty was shortlived and in 1943, he was interned at the Weihsien Internment Camp with other staff from a number of Christian mission schools.

There, he became known as Uncle Eric given his work helping the elderly and teaching Bible class and science to children.

Langdon Gilkey, who survived the camp, earlier recalled Liddell busying himself under the toughest of circumstances.

He said: “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.”

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But beneath Liddell’s kindly demenour lay pain. On the day he died, Liddell wrote to his wife of suffering a nervous breakdown due to overwork. He had an inoperable brain tumour and it is believed overwork and malnourishment may have quickened his demise. Liddell died on February 21,1945, five months before liberation.

Alison Johnstone MSP, Presiding Officer of the Scottish Parliament, said the exhibition was a powerful reminder of Liddell’s legacy.

She said: “We are delighted to host this exhibition in the Scottish Parliament, which celebrates the significant achievements of Eric Liddell but also serves as a powerful reminder of his legacy. It seems particularly relevant as Olympians from across the world prepare to compete in Paris. The Scottish Parliament is delighted to provide a platform for sharing his inspiring story with the thousands of people who will visit us this summer.”

‘Eric Liddell: Legacy of an Olympic legend’ at the Scottish Parliament is free to the public and no ticket is required.

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