News02 Mar 2024

'The Flying Scotsman' Liddell honoured with World Athletics Heritage Plaque


Seb Coe presents Heritage Plaque to the niece of Eric Liddell, Sue Liddell Caton, at the MOWA Exhibition Glasgow (© WIC Glasgow 24)

At a ceremony held at the MOWA World Indoor Athletics Exhibition in the St. Enoch Centre, Glasgow, World Athletics President Sebastian Coe announced the awarding of a World Athletics Heritage Plaque in the posthumous category of 'Legend' to 'The Flying Scotsman' Eric Liddell.

Coe presented the plaque to Liddell's niece Susan Liddell Caton. Her father Ernest was Eric’s younger brother. Caton is one of the Patrons of The Eric Liddell Community, which is an Edinburgh-based care charity and community hub. Their work, which reflects Liddell’s code of ethics, includes supporting people living with dementia, and providing a day care service and a wellbeing programme for unpaid volunteers.

The presentation of the plaque took place in front of an invited audience of 150 guests that included 1980 Olympic 100m champion Allan Wells and 2000 Olympic heptathlon champion Denise Lewis, who earlier in the ceremony had made donations of historic clothing and shoes from their competition careers to the Museum of World Athletics.

'The Flying Scotsman' Eric Liddell

'The Flying Scotsman' Eric Liddell (© Getty Images)

Coe commented: "I am honoured on behalf of World Athletics to announce this award which celebrates one of Britain's greatest and most inspirational Olympic champions.

"As immortalised by the 1981 Oscar-winning film 'Chariots of Fire', the religiously devout Liddell made the principled decision not to compete in his preferred event, the 100m, in the 1924 Paris Games because the timetabling of the heats would have meant competing on a Sunday, a day he held sacred.

“Liddell instead switched his Olympic ambitions to the 200m and 400m. He finished with bronze in the former and won gold in the one lap in an Olympic record, all the more remarkable as he ran blind of his more experienced competitors, having been drawn in the outside lane.

“Liddell poured his heart and soul into his running, a commitment he matched in every strand of his life, ultimately laying down his life for his faith and missionary work.”

Liddell Caton commented: "I am so pleased that World Athletics has chosen to recognise my uncle Eric Liddell with this award, 100 years on from his Olympic success in Paris 1924.

“I’m thrilled to be able to accept this on behalf of the Liddell family and hope his legacy continues to inspire younger and future generations.”

The plaque will be placed on permanent public display at The Eric Liddell Community, which is based in a converted church in Edinburgh. The charity is leading The Eric Liddel 100, an exciting programme of events and activities to recognise and celebrate the legacy of the Scottish and international icon.

The World Athletics Heritage Plaque is a location-based recognition, awarded for 'an outstanding contribution to the worldwide history and development of the sport of track and field athletics and of out-of-stadia athletics disciplines such as cross country, mountain, road, trail and ultra-running, and race walking'.

Eric Henry Liddell (16 January 1902 – 21 February 1945)

Born in 1902 in the city of Tientsin in north-eastern China, Liddell was the son of missionary parents working for the Church of Scotland. 

Liddell, who studied at Edinburgh University for a BSc in Pure Science, was a talented rugby player capped seven times for Scotland as a wing three quarter but who ultimately decided to concentrate his leg speed on athletics success. 

Liddell won five successive Scottish titles in the 100 yards and the 220 yards (1921 to 1925) and took the 440 yards gold twice (1924 and 1925). He demonstrated his Olympic credentials by winning the Amateur Athletics Association Championships in the 100 yards and 220 yards in 1923 and the 440 yards in 1924, the latter his personal trial for Paris.

The manner of his Olympic victory in the 400m, a few days after he had taken bronze in the 200m, was remarkable. He set out at a devasting pace and, with grit and determination, held on to his lead to win by six metres in an Olympic record of 47.6.

To put the magnitude of his Olympic performance into perspective, Liddell had travelled to Paris with a personal best of 49.6, and his winning time – a European record – remained unbroken until 1936.

Liddell continued running in 1925, taking three individual Scottish titles and a relay victory. Later the same year, after graduating from Edinburgh University, he travelled to China to join his father as a missionary where he devoted his life to work for the poor of China. 

He married Florence Mackenzie, from a Canadian missionary family, in Tianjin in 1934, and the couple had three daughters. 

In 1943, with the world war intensifying, Liddell’s wife and children followed British government advise to their nationals to leave China, and they settled in Canada with Florence’s family. Liddell stayed on to continue his mission and ultimately gave his life for his faith, dying in a war time internment camp aged 43.

“Eric is remembered in many ways to different people – as a sportsman, a husband and father, a devout soul who lived his life according to his beliefs, a graduate of Edinburgh University and a missionary in China who refused to leave those he looked after during the Second World War. If he had lived longer than his forty-three years, who knows what more he could have done.” – The Eric Liddell Community.

World Athletics Heritage