it was a glorious summer evening, as sunshine bathed the July 11 crowds packing Paris’s Colombes Stadium, for one of the highlights of the 1924 Olympic Games.
Oblivious to both the crowds and the weather, deep inside the stadium, Scottish sprinter Eric Liddell was just a few minutes away from writing himself into the history books with a performance that would not only see him take gold in the final of the 400m, but also set new Olympic and world records.
But that was still to come. For now, the dressing room was characteristically quiet as Liddell was massaged by the small stout Scot who’d been by his side over the past four years as his trainer.
But Tom McKerchar and his crticial role in coaching Liddell to Olympic glory never featured in the smash hit film, Chariots of Fire, which brought his protege’s achievements to a wider public audience.
But Liddell knew how important McKerchar had been to his success. Ever loyal, Liddell ensured McKerchar’s name was among the VIP guests invited to the civic reception thrown in Edinburgh on his triumphant return to Scotland after the games ended.
Liddell’s sporting legend was added to by his famous refusal to break the Sabbath by competing in the Olympic heats of his favoured event, the 100m. Most people will have formed their views of Liddell, from Chariots of Fire. But there is much more to the story of this iconic Scottish sportsman, including, many will be surprised to learn, his sporting links with the Borders.
Galashiels vet Harry McKerchar, who has worked in the town for the last 35 years, is Tom McKerchar’s grandson and the figure of Eric Liddell features in many of the McKerchar family stories.
As a young boy growing up, Harry added no other significance to Liddell’s name other than that he was one of the runners ‘Grandpa’ had coached in the distant past.
Although Harry never met his grandfather – Tom was Harry’s grandfather on his father’s side of the family – he is immensly proud of the family link with one of Scotland’s greatest sporting icons.
Harry told explained: “My grandfather was a printer by trade, but he was always interested in athletics.
“Liddell was one of the lads he coached, from when he was at university, right through to the Olympic Games. My father used to tell how Grandpa was always infuriated by Liddell, because he never used to turn up for training as he was always at Bible class.
“Grandpa had developed these innovative techniques for coaching athletes and was one of the first people to use massage and physiotherapy as part of a coaching regime.
“He was always interested in how athletes run, how they used their bodies to run. People will be familiar with the peculiar way of running Eric Liddell had, with his head thrown back.
“Grandpa tried constantly to get him out of this. But Liddell said it was his natural way to run. He used to say he ran the first half of the race for Eric Liddell and the second half for God.”
Liddell’s life has been the subject of many books, and one of the best – reprinted earlier this year – is Pure Gold by David McCasland.
Here, at least, Tom McKerchar’s pivotal role in the Liddell legend is well documented.
Tom McKerchar was 44 years old when he first shook Liddell’s hand at the Powderhall track.
Standing 5ft 5ins tall, he is described in the book as more bulldog than greyhound, but with an intrinsic understanding of muscles, tension and tone.
And just four months after entrusting himself to McKerchar, Liddell was among the cream of British sprinters and already being touted as a possible future Olympic champion.
Harry takes up the story: “My family found Chariots of Fire very realistic and an enjoyable film, but we were a bit disappointed to find that Tom McKerchar wasn’t mentioned at all.
“The film was based more on the story of Liddell’s fellow runner, Harold Abrahams, than on Liddell. Personally, I thought the film made Liddell out to be a wee bit of a religious buffoon and he wasn’t that at all.
“From my father’s stories, Liddell was clearly very intelligent. He regularly came to my grandparents’ house on many occasions. In fact, my father’s brother was christened Eric Liddell McKerchar and Eric Liddell was actually his godfather.”
In Pure Gold, McCasland recounts how Liddell paid tribute to his coach at the civic reception in Edinburgh: “Glancing at the table where McKerchar sat ... Eric continued: ‘In all the mentions of my Olympic victory, one thing has been forgotten and that is the great part my trainer, Mr Tom McKerchar, has played in my success.
‘For the last four years, he has coached me and shown me exactly how to run the various races. When I ran my first quarter mile at Edinburgh University, my trainer really ran it for me, before sending me out to try it on the track. I have much for which to thank Mr McKerchar in all my success’.”
And there are other links between Liddell and the Borders. On December 8, 1921, the first trial match for selection for the Scottish international rugby team drew 8,000 spectators to Netherdale in Galashiels.
The large crowd was treated to the sight of Liddell scoring five tries. Liddell would go on to win seven international caps for Scotland, but it was his fame as an Olympian that would eclipse all else. Just five weeks after stepping off the boat from France, Liddell found himself in Galashiels again, this time for the final athletics meet of the season.
Many believed it would be his last appearance on a Scottish track before he left to pursue his career as a missionary in China.
Thousands are reported to have flocked to Netherdale to watch Liddell run and he did not disappoint them. He took second place in the 100-yard handicap and victory in the 440-yard event in the pouring rain.
He’d also competed at the Hawick Common Riding sports in the town’s Volunteer Park just a month before the Paris Olympics.
Liddell knew the Borders well. Apart from competing at race meetings, his mother’s family lived in Coldstream and the Liddell family itself spent many a happy holiday at Carcant, near Heriot.
But Liddell’s family had long been associated with Christian missionary work in China, where Liddell himself had been born.
He returned to China in 1925, where he was ordained a minister in 1932.
He married Florence Mackenzie two years later and the couple had three daughters. But Japanese forces invaded in 1937 and Liddell’s family moved to Canada, while Liddell himself remained in China.
In 1943, he was interned by the Japanese authorities in a camp at Weishien, where he died just a few months before the end of the war due to a brain tumour.
Harry, who still has the gold watch presented to his grandfather in recognition of coaching Liddell to Olympic glory, knows why Liddell’s story still has the power to move people.
He said: “It is a Boys’ Own story, isn’t it. It’s ‘Tough of the Track’. Nobody thought Liddell could win races, not the way he ran. I’m not religious myself, but I greatly admire his conviction and commitment to what he believed in.
“I have to admit, every time I see the Chariots of Fire title scenes, with the athletes running along the beach and the music, I’m in a heap. It’s an amazing story.”