The Olympic Gold Medalist Whose Record Of Heroics Has Been Lost To History

“Don’t aim at any impossible heroisms. Strive rather to be quiet in your own sphere.” —William Morley Punshon

In A Nutshell

Today, Eric Liddell is only remembered for winning a gold medal at the 1924 Paris Olympics in the men’s 400-meter race. But his real heroics came later, quietly and without fanfare. Working as a missionary in the city of Tianjin in China, he was placed in an internment camp in the early 1940s after Tianjin fell to the Japanese. He shared his rations when others wouldn’t and refused to leave the camp when Winston Churchill arranged for the ailing Liddell to be freed in a prisoner exchange. Instead, Liddell let a pregnant lady go in his place. Sick and malnourished, he died a couple months before the camp was liberated in 1945.

The Whole Bushel

Today, Eric Liddell is only remembered for winning a gold medal at the 1924 Paris Olympics in the men’s 400-meter race. The grueling training, the ultimate victory, and the religious faith that spurred his decision not to run the 100-meter heat on the Sabbath are portrayed in Chariots of Fire, a 1981 movie that won “Best Picture” in a surprise upset at the Academy Awards the following year. Film critic Chris Vognar called the movie “an underdog about underdogs.”

As inspiring as the movie is, it doesn’t do justice to the man that Liddell was or would become. But maybe that’s the way he would have wanted it. He was the type of person who did what was right because it was right, not because he would be glorified as a hero. The Student, an Edinburgh University magazine, summed up student Eric Liddell’s character perfectly in December 1923:

Ninety-nine men, gifted with Eric’s prowess, would now be insufferably swollen headed, but here we have the hundredth man. Here is a man who hates praise and shuns publicity, yet is deserving of both. Here is a man with a mind of his own, and not afraid to voice his most secret feeling on a platform if, by doing so, he thinks it will help his fellows. Here is a man who has courage, and delights to accept a challenge, be it for the sake of his School, his ‘Varsity, his country or his God. And lastly, here is a man who wins because he sets his teeth, quietly but firmly, and always plays the game. Everyone is fond of Eric.

Liddell was born in the city of Tianjin in China to missionary parents, and that’s where he returned after the Olympics, this time as a missionary himself. He abandoned his athletic career at its peak, but seemed to have no lasting regrets. He was quoted as saying, “It’s natural for a chap to think over [leaving a successful athletics career] 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.” A dozen years later, he became an ordained minister, who spread God’s word in Xiaochang County.

When China came under attack from Japan, Liddell persevered. At great personal risk, he visited the sick and the poor and even rescued two Chinese soldiers who’d been wounded. British citizens were urged to leave China by the British government. But Liddell stayed to give assistance to the poor even after his family returned to Britain. Eventually, Japan took control of Tianjin, and Liddell was placed in a Weihsien internment camp in the early 1940s. He shared his rations when others wouldn’t, educated the children, and refused to leave the camp when Winston Churchill arranged for the ailing Liddell to be freed in a prisoner exchange.

Instead, Liddell let a pregnant lady go in his place. Sick and malnourished, he died a couple months before the camp was liberated in 1945. He was survived by his wife and three daughters, one of whom he never met.

Show Me The Proof

Featured photo via Wikipedia
NPR: The Four Biggest Best Picture Oscar Upsets, Statistically Speaking
Today I Found Out: The Heroic Death Of Chariots Of Fire’s Eric Liddell
The Eric Liddell Centre: Quotations