Liddell was the winner of the men's 400 metres at the 1924 Summer Olympics in Paris. Liddell's Olympic training and racing, and the religious convictions that influenced him, are depicted in the Oscar-winning 1981 film Chariots of Fire, in which he is portrayed by fellow Scot Ian Charleson.
Eric Liddell, often called the "Flying Scotsman" after the record breaking locomotive, was born in Tianjin (formerly transliterated as Tientsin) (Chinese 天津) in North China, the second son of the Rev and Mrs James Dunlop Liddell, who were Scottish missionaries with the London Missionary Society. Liddell was born in 1902 and went to school in China until the age of five. At the age of six, he and his brother Robert, eight years old, were enrolled in Eltham College, Mottingham, a boarding school in England for the sons of missionaries. Their parents and sister Jenny returned to China. During the boys' time at Eltham, their parents, sister and new brother Ernest came home on furlough two or three times and were able to be together as a family, mainly living in Edinburgh.
At Eltham, Liddell was an outstanding sportsman, being awarded the Blackheath Cup as the best athlete of his year, playing for the First XI and the First XV by the age of 15, later becoming captain of both the cricket and rugby union teams. His headmaster described him as being 'entirely without vanity'.
Liddell became well-known for being the fastest runner in Scotland while at Eltham College. Newspapers carried stories of his feats at track meets. Many articles stated that he was a potential Olympic winner, at a time when no Scottish athlete had ever won an Olympic gold medal.
Liddell was chosen to speak for Glasgow Students' Evangelical Union because he was a strong Christian. The GSEU hoped that he would draw large crowds to hear the Gospel. The GSEU would send out a group of eight to ten men to an area where they would stay with the local population. It was Liddell's job to be the lead speaker and to evangelize the men of Scotland.
In 1921, Liddell joined his brother Rob at the University of Edinburgh to study Pure Science. Athletics and rugby played a large part in his university life. He ran in the 100 yards and 220 yards races for Edinburgh University and played rugby, later earning a place in the backline for a strong Scottish national rugby union team. In 1922 and 1923, he played in seven out of eight Five Nations matches along with A. L. Gracie. In 1923 he won the AAA Championships in athletics in the 100 (setting a British record of 9.7 seconds that would not be broken for 35 years) and 220 yards (21.6 seconds). He graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree after the Paris Olympiad in 1924.
Once every four years Edinburgh University holds a parade in Liddell's honour.
Eltham College's sports centre was named "Eric Liddell Sports Centre" in his memory.
The Olympics were hosted by the city of Paris. A devout Christian, Liddell refused to run in a heat held on Sunday (the Christian Sabbath) and was forced to withdraw from the 100-metres race, his best event. The schedule had been published several months earlier, and his decision was made well before the Games. Liddell spent the intervening months training for the 400 metres, an event in which he had previously excelled. Even so, his success in the 400m was largely unexpected. When the day of the 400 metres race came, Liddell went to the starting blocks, where an American Olympic Team masseur slipped a piece of paper into his hand with a quotation from 1 Samuel 2:30: "Those who honor me I will honor."
The pipe band of the 51st Highland Brigade played outside the stadium for the hour before he ran. The 400 metres had been considered a middle-distance event in which runners raced round the first bend and coasted through the back leg. Inspired by the biblical message and the pipe music, Liddell raced the whole of the first 200 metres to be well clear of the favored Americans. With little option but to then treat the race as a complete sprint, he continued to race round the final bend. He was challenged all the way down the home straight but held on to take the win. He broke the existing Olympic record with a time of 47.6 seconds.
A few days earlier Liddell had competed in the 200 metre finals, for which he received the bronze medal behind Americans Jackson Scholz and Charles Paddock, beating British rival and teammate Harold Abrahams, who finished in sixth place. (This was the second and last race in which these two runners met.)
After the Olympics and graduation from university, Liddell continued to compete. Shortly after the 1924 Olympics, his final leg on the 4 x 400 metres race in a British Empire vs. USA contest helped secure the victory. A year later, in 1925, at the Scottish Amateur Athletics Association (AAA) meeting in Hampden Park in Glasgow, he equalled his Scottish championship record of 10.0 seconds in the 100, won the 220 yard contest in 22.2 seconds, won the 440 yard contest in 47.7, and participated in a winning relay team. He was only the fourth athlete to have won all three sprints at the SAAA, achieving this feat in 1924 and 1925.
Because of his birth and death in China, some of that country's Olympic literature lists Liddell as China's first Olympic champion.