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But on the athletic field, Eric made some noise. Both Robert and Eric were soon recognized as the top athletes at Eltham. They led the rugby team, and in 1918, just before Robert’s graduation, Eric and Robert alternated taking first and second place in six of the nine track and field events on the Annual Sports Day.
Their secondary school years, however, were completed during the horrific backdrop of World War I. A number of their classmates paid the ultimate price on the battlefields of France. As a result, Eric’s headmaster ingrained in the boys the responsibility Christians have to “play the game” of life with integrity, courage, and conviction. Eric’s actions later in life showed clearly that he had taken this important message to heart.
University Rugby and Track Star
Upon graduation from Eltham College, Eric followed his older brother to Edinburgh University. Robert set his sights on becoming a missionary doctor. Eric planned to study math and science. He also looked forward to the return of the rest of his family to Scotland. They would all be together for the first time in thirteen years.
As Eric started his studies, he played rugby from time to time. When his classmates noticed his blazing speed, he was asked to compete in the University of Edinburgh Varsity Sports meet. A friend helped train him for the event. When Eric won the 100-yard dash and came in second, behind Scotland’s fastest in the 220-yard race, he was immediately selected to represent Edinburgh in the Scottish Intervarsity Sports competition.
Not only was his speed recognized, but a number of people commented on his odd running style. One man was heard to say, “Quite an ungainly action, that lad.” His friend replied, “Aye, but he beat Stewart once and almost again. Odd style or not, he’s fast!”1 Eventually coaches tried to change his running mechanics and competitors wondered how he managed to run so fast with such bad form. Later it would be reported in the British paper, The Guardian,
He is remembered among lovers of athletics as probably the ugliest runner who ever won an Olympic championship. When he appeared in the heats of the 400m at Paris in 1924 his huge sprawling stride, his head thrown back and his arms clawing the air, moved the Americans and other sophisticated experts to ribald laughter.2
But Harold Abrahams, who won the 100-meters gold medal in the Paris Olympics reasoned, “People may shout their heads off about his appalling style. Well, let them. He gets there.”3
During the summer of 1921, Eric went on to win the 100- and 220-yard races at the Scottish Inter-University Games and many other races as well. He won so many gold and silver cups, plates, and other valuable prizes that his mom actually was worried that someone might try to rob their home. The Glasgow Herald wrote, “E.H. Liddell, Edinburgh University A.C., is going to be a British champion ere long, and he might even blossom into an Olympic hero . . . Liddell, as much because of his supreme grit as because of his pace, is a great figure in modern athletics.”4
In the fall of 1921, Eric and his brother Robert played rugby for Edinburgh University. While only five-foot-nine and 155 pounds, Eric’s speed and determination made him an instant rugby star at the wing position. He was selected to play on the Scottish national team in 1922. He and his former schoolboy partner, Leslie Gracie, made a powerful “Gracie-Liddell Wing” combination. Over the course of his short rugby career, Eric played for Scotland in seven games and was on the winning side six times. The greatest win was against Wales, which Scotland hadn’t beaten since 1870. That win helped make Eric Liddell a hero among the working class of Scotland who admired the toughness and skill required to be a world-class rugby player.
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