A fellow athlete who met Eric Liddell in 1924, and became a friend, talks about Eric Liddell’s athletics career and his Olympic gold medal winning race.
The Cambridge University Athletics Club had an invitation from Pennsylvania to take a team of seven to the Pennsylvanian Games in March 1924, and I was one of the seven. Eric Liddell, the Scot from Edinburgh University, the 1923 AAA 100 yards Champion, had been personally invited and travelled with us. We stayed at the very comfortable Pennsylvanian Cricket Club. I am afraid none of, including Eric Liddell, managed to win an event at the Pennsylvanian Games.
We travelled back in a small slow ship of the American United Line called ‘The Republic’ – a ten day crossing. Eric Liddell entered in the fun and games on the boat, including the Fancy Dress Dance. Whilst he was very strict about religion. Eric and I became good friends and saw much of two American sisters, Freddie and Edith, who were travelling to ‘do Europe’, including the UK. They said they were going to be in Paris for the Olympic Games, and we said if we were there at the same time we hoped we could meet.
Harold Abrahams had set his whole life on winning the Olympic 100 Metres – it had become and obsession with him. Liddell’s achievement in winning the 1923 AAA 100 Yards in the record time of 9 7/10 seconds was a devastating blow to Abrahams and shook him to the core. To date Abrahams had been a consistent 10 seconds 100 yards winner but had only slightly broken 10 seconds on one or two occasions. He knew in the Olympics he would be up against overseas competition, particularly from the Americans, but this new and very serious opposition out of the blue and on his doorstep had come at a time when Harold had established his 100 yards supremacy in the UK. To achieve level pegging with Eric Liddell’s new record time, Harold had to improve his performance by two or three yards with the help of his trainer Sam Mussabini. It must have been a tremendous relief to Harold when it became known early in 1924 that Eric had decided to concentrate on the 400 metres and, because of his religious principles, would not compete in the Olympic 100 metres as first heats were always run on Sunday.
Eric had in turn become completely dedicated to winning an Olympic Medal within the restrictions of his faith. He was a famous Scottish international rugger player, and gave up his rugger to enable him to concentrate on his Olympic ambitions, which became very deep-rooted, and his work suffered. Winning an Olympic Gold Medal became a priority, second only to his religion, and the ambition to win this event became part of his religion.
The team travelled to Paris days before the Olympics started and had a big send-off at Victoria Station.
The silence at the start of the 100 metres and 400 metres was quite electric. Harold Abrahams won the 100 metres in a new Games record time.
In spite of all that has been said about Abrahams’ 100 metres, the 400 metres in some way provided the greatest thrill of the meeting with the world record being broken by Eric Liddell three times in two days. It was thought that Liddell had some chance of winning, but nobody thought Liddell capable of the amazing performance he achieved in the final. As far as the crowd were concerned they were well informed about Liddell’s dedication to his religion and his refusal to run in the first round of the 100 metres on the Sunday; they also knew of his determination to win this event. The occasion was enlivened by the support given to Liddell by the pipes and drums of the Cameron Highlanders.
The silence and pent-up excitement at the start of the race could be felt. Liddell went ahead at the start and maintained his pace throughout, finishing in what at the time was described as ‘a most lion-hearted manner’ winning by three yards from Fitch, an American. This was probably the greatest achievement of the VIIIth Olympiad, and superlatives were showered on Liddell by the press of the entire world. Liddell was short and not a pretty runner but just pounded along virtually at the same pace all the way, with a finish as if he was making a final dash for a try in a rugger match with an opponent bearing down on him and about to tackle from behind.
After Eric had won the 400 metres Gold Medal, Eric and I made contact with Freddie and Edith, the American sisters, and took them to a Tango Tea Dance in the Champs Elysees.