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The man trapped in a POW camp 2 decades after winning Olympic gold

Scottish athlete Eric Liddell led an extraordinary life, as this extract illustrates.

Eric Liddell (file pic).
Eric Liddell (file pic).
Image: PA Archive/PA Images

ERIC LIDDELL, THE Scottish Missionary who won the Gold in the 400 metres at the 1924 Olympic Games in Paris.

His story was made famous by the film, “Chariots of Fire”. After quitting athletics he became a christian missionary in China, until captured by the Japanese.

He died in a POW Camp in 1945. Below is an extract from a recently published book on his life…

He is crouching on the start line, which has been scratched out with a stick across the parched earth.

His upper body is thrust slightly forward and his arms are bent at the elbow.

His left leg is planted ahead of the right, the heels of both raised slightly in preparation for a springy launch.

Exactly two decades earlier he had won his Olympic title in the hot, shallow bowl of Paris’s Colombes Stadium. Afterwards, the crowd in the yellow-painted grandstands gave him the longest and loudest ovation of those Games.

What inspired them was not only his roaring performance, but also the element of sacrificial romance wound into his personal story, which unfolded in front of them like the plot of some thunderous novel. Now, trapped in a Japanese prisoner of war camp, the internees have teemed out of the low dormitories and the camp’s bell tower to line the route of the makeshift course to see Eric Liddell again.

Even the guards in the watchtowers peer down eagerly at the scene. In Paris, Liddell ran on a track of crimson cinder.

In Weihsien, he’ll compete along dusty pathways which the prisoners have named to remind them nostalgically of faraway home: Main Street, Sunset Boulevard, Tin Pan Alley.

Liddell claimed his gold medal in a snow-white singlet, his country’s flag across his chest. Here he wears a shirt cut from patterned kitchen curtains, baggy khaki shorts, which are grubby and drop to the knee, and a pair of grey canvas ‘spikes’, almost identical to those he’d used during the Olympics.

As surreal as it seems, ‘Sports Days’ such as this one are an established feature of the camp.

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For the internees, it is a way of forgetting — for a few hours at least — the reality of incarceration; one prisoner wistfully calls each of these days ‘a speck of glitter amid the dull monotony’.

Even though he is over 40 years old, practically bald and pitifully thin, Liddell is the marquee attraction.

Those who don’t run want to watch him. Those who do want to beat him. Though spread over 60,000 square miles, the coastal province of Shandong, tucked into the eastern edge of China’s north plain, looks minuscule on maps of that immense country.

Weihsien is barely a pencil dot within Shandong. And the camp itself is merely a speck within that — a roll of land of approximately three acres, roughly the size of two football pitches.

Caught in both the vastness of China and also the grim mechanism of the Second World War, which seems without respite let alone end, the internees had begun to think of themselves as forsaken. Until the Red Cross at last got food parcels to them in July, there were those who feared the slow, slow death of starvation.

Weight fell off everyone. Some lost 15lb or more, including Liddell. He dropped from 160lb to around 130. Others, noticeably corpulent on entering Weihsien, shed over 80lb and looked like lost souls in worn clothes.

For the Glory: The Life of Eric Liddell is published by Doubleday. More info here.

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