Eric Liddell’s last pupil pays tribute to sporting legend

Dr Cheng meets CEO of the Eric Liddell Centre, John MacMillan
Dr Cheng meets CEO of the Eric Liddell Centre, John MacMillan
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A 90-year-old man, believed to be the last living student of Edinburgh athlete Eric Liddell, has visited the community hub set up in the Olympic hero’s name.

Dr HK Cheng made a special journey to visit the Eric Liddell Centre to pay tribute to the athlete, a devout Christian, who achieved worldwide fame after winning an Olympic gold medal at the 1924 Summer Olympics in Paris for the 400 metres after refusing to compromise his religious beliefs by competing in the 100 metres final on a Sunday.

Liddell, dubbed the “Flying Scotsman”, taught Dr Cheng at the Anglo Chinese College in China in the 1930s after he left Edinburgh to work there as a missionary.

Liddell’s dramatic story was depicted in the 1981 Oscar-winning film Chariots of Fire.

While visiting the centre in Morningside, Dr Cheng met Sue Caton, Liddell’s niece and patron of the centre, and his other niece Joan Nicol.

The runner’s connection with China ran deep.

Born in Tianjin in north-eastern China, Liddell was the son of Church of Scotland missionaries. He studied for a BSc in pure science at the University of Edinburgh, where he became an accomplished athlete and was selected for the British Olympic team.

Dr Cheng, from Tianjin, who became a structural engineer, said: “As students back home in China, we all had immense admiration for Eric Liddell as an Olympic champion and indeed a hero in both sports and Christianity.

“Eric was a missionary for almost 20 years and never missed a chance to help us.

“I am delighted to have had the opportunity to visit the Eric Liddell Centre and learn about all the work they are doing within the community in his name.

He added: “He was an inspiration and taught us many life lessons while firing our passion for sport. He was energetic, kind and always strived to help people, something which is fantastic to see reflected in the work done by the centre.”

Dr Cheng became head of the Eric Liddell Foundation in Hong Kong where he was involved in the creation of a memorial to the Scot in Weifang, China, where he died in 1945 after being interned by the Japanese in a prison camp.

Ms Caton said: “It’s fantastic to hear from those who were taught by my uncle, especially all those years ago.

“I believe HK Cheng might be the last living student of Eric’s so it’s just wonderful to hear him speak so favourably of his childhood and how Eric played such an influence on his own life and career.”

John MacMillan, the centre’s chief executive who invited Dr Cheng to Edinburgh, said: “We can’t thank Dr Cheng enough for making the journey to the UK to see us.

“To hear first-hand of the influence Eric had on him, possibly one of the last living students, is great.”

Despite increasing tensions in the area, Liddell decided to stay in China and continue his missionary work while sending his wife and two children to live in Canada. When the Second World War started, he was interned in a Weihsien camp. Five months from liberation, Liddell died of a brain tumour. He wrote to his wife on his final day that he thought he was having a “nervous breakdown” due to the stress of overwork.

In 2002 he was named Scotland’s most popular athlete by public vote for the Scottish Sports Hall of Fame.