THIS week sees the 75th anniversary of the death of Eric Liddell, the Olympic gold medallist, Scotland rugby star and Christian missionary who died of a brain tumour in a Japanese internment camp in China on February 21, 1945.

I intend to write a much longer piece on Liddell in The National soon, but today I want to concentrate on a happy but much misunderstood aspect of his life – his achievements in 1924.

If all you know about Liddell is derived from the film Chariots of Fire, then you will probably have a limited view of a man who was a much more complex individual than portrayed in the movie which took several liberties with his Olympic story.

For a start, the scenes in which the late Ian Charleson as Liddell “discovers” that the 100m final at the Paris Olympics of 1924 is going to be held on a Sunday is a convenient device by the screenwriter Colin Welland to make a drama out of a non-existent crisis, because Liddell knew months in advance that the heats – not the final – of the 100m would be held on Sunday, July 6.

His strict interpretation of his Christian faith meant that he would not compete on a Sunday, so well in advance of the games he began to concentrate on the 200m and 400m in which the heats and finals were on weekdays.

Born in China in 1902, Liddell had attended boarding school in England. He had been a champion sprinter, rugby player and cricketer in his teens, and while at Edinburgh University from 1920 onwards he had been capped seven times for Scotland as a winger, scoring four tries – his first cap came against France in the Stade Colombes in Paris, where the athletics events were staged in 1924.

While still a student, he was indeed a leading Christian evangelist who never had any doubt about his future following university – he would go back to his birthplace, China, and be a missionary like his parents.

Liddell’s feats on the rugby pitch and athletics track were well covered by the press. He was actually one of the favourites to win the 100m at the 1924 Olympics as he had set a British record for 100 yards in the previous year’s AAA Championships – that record of 9.7 secs stood for 35 years, and shocked Harold Abrahams into realising he would have to train harder.

When it was learned that Liddell would put his faith before Team GB, as it wasn’t then called, he did indeed get criticism in the press, but his family, it should be emphasised, strongly supported Liddell’s running as it enabled him to spread the Christian message to a wider audience and his sister Jennie was just a little girl in China at the time of the Olympics – the family only found out he’d won gold some months after the event.

Liddell had trained hard for the 200m and 400m, leaving Abrahams to compete in the 100m. Indeed, Liddell did not even compete in the 100 yards in the 1924 AAA Championships, leaving Abrahams to win the title in 9.9 secs. Liddell did, however, win the 440-yard AAA title, but his time of 49.6 secs was not encouraging. He threw himself into training, and by the time the Olympics came around, he knew he was capable of a much better time.

It is often forgotten that Liddell won two medals in 1924. In the 200m, he cruised through the heats and quarter-finals on Tuesday, July 8, and then on the following day he came second in the semi-final behind the USA’s Charley Paddock.

In the final later that day, Liddell took bronze behind Americans Jackson Scholz and Paddock in a time of 21.9 secs. Abrahams came sixth and last – he never did beat Liddell.

Having raced four times in two days, Liddell did not have even a day’s rest as the 400m heats began on Thursday July 10. There were 17 heats to accommodate 60 runners from 27 nations.

Liddell won heat 14 comfortably in a time of 50.2 secs, and progressed to the quarter-final later that day. He only managed to finish second in his quarter-final but there is evidence that he took it easy as he knew he only had to finish in the first two. Neither of the Americans who had beaten him in the 200m final were competing in the 400m, but Horatio Fitch and John Coard Taylor of the USA were strong opponents, as was Josef Imbach of Switzerland, who set a new Olympic record of 48.0 secs in the quarter-finals.

In Chariots of Fire, Liddell’s performance in the final astonishes everyone. Clearly they had not seen the semi-final at about 3pm on Friday, July 11. Liddell had conserved his energy in the previous rounds and now displayed his full raw power, blitzing round the track in 48.2 secs to beat both Imbach and Taylor. It was almost a full half-second slower than the Olympic record set by Horatio Fitch in his semi-final. Guy Butler of Great Britain came second in that race to qualify for the final, and he did so in a faster time than Liddell, so victory for the Scot was by no means certain.

The scene in the film where he is handed a biblical note by an American athlete didn’t quite happen like that. It was actually one of Team GB’s masseurs who wrote: “In the old book it says: ‘He that honours me I will honour.’ Wishing you the best of success always.” Liddell recognised the reference even though it was a misquotation from the Book of Samuel.

As depicted in the film, he blasted off in the outside lane and went far too fast, or so all those watching thought. Surely that initial effort would tell in the home straight which he entered well in the lead. Fitch and Butler closed but not enough, and Liddell held on to win in a new Scottish, British, European, Olympic and World Record of 47.6 secs.

Scotland had a new hero, one who inspires us still.