Eric Liddell: in profile

Eric Liddell was a British Olympic gold medallist, Scottish rugby union player and Christian missionary whose story was immortalised in the Oscar-winning film Chariots of Fire (1981). Born in China to Scottish parents, he refused to run on a Sunday at the 1924 Olympic Games because of his religious beliefs, but he went on to win the 400-metre race. He later worked as a Christian missionary in China, where he died in a Japanese internment camp during the Second World War aged just 43.

When did you first hear about Eric Liddell?

I suppose like many people, when I watched Chariots of Fire as a kid. It’s one of those mesmerising films that you can’t forget, and I made a documentary about him several years ago. I’m such a fan of both Eric and Chariots that I’ve even made my kids watch it! I’ve always loved both sport and history, so his story, which is so unique, really resonated with me.

What kind of man was he?

He was very much his own man. Many people tried to persuade him to run on a Sunday [the day his 100-metre-sprint heat was held at the 1924 Olympics, which he refused to race on due to his Christian faith], because of his incredible ability as a runner. He had to be very strong-willed to stay true to his beliefs, despite the promise of Olympic glory on the athletic track. His faith was a huge part of his life, and he was a shining example of someone who believed some things were more important than winning a gold medal.

He had to be very strong-willed to stay true to his Christian beliefs, despite the promise of Olympic glory on the athletic track

I’m also struck by the way he looked after people at the internment camp in China where he was held [from 1943–45], even sharing his food with fellow inmates – that for me is the mark of a great man.

What made Eric a hero?

Ever since watching Chariots of Fire, I’ve thought: “What an incredible man.” I love the fact that his running style was so unusual: head thrown back, arms flailing everywhere. Totally unconventional, but successful. But it’s not so much his sporting achievements as what he did in later life, and particularly at the internment camp, that make Eric Liddell a hero to me. It’s been claimed that at one point he passed up the chance to leave the camp in a prisoner exchange, instead giving the opportunity to someone else. I don’t think many people would have acted so selflessly.

It’s easy to act impressively when the world is watching, but the real sign of heroism is what you do when the world isn’t watching.

Can you see any parallels between Eric’s life and your own?

I too have chosen not to work on a Sunday in my career – that’s helped give me a perspective on things and allowed me not to let my work take over my life.

Could you have been a great athlete?

No, but I did once win the school sports day 100-metre dash!

What would you ask Eric if you could meet him?

I’d ask how close he came to running in that 100 metres – was there ever a question in his mind? I’d also ask what drove him to give up everything to go and be a missionary in China.

Dan Walker was talking to York Membery

Dan Walker presents BBC Breakfast and has also been the longstanding host of the BBC programme Football Focus. His book Remarkable People: Extraordinary Stories of Everyday Lives (Headline) is out now. He was talking to York Membery

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This article was first published in the June 2021 edition of BBC History Magazine