History Journal | Vol. 6 | Sport Shirt


- 1920s Olympians' Sport Shirts -

In the 1920s, well before the time of high-tech synthetic athletic wear, Olympic athletes of the day typically wore a form of jersey cotton top – it was short sleeved, although they would have been longer, coming all the way down to the elbow, had a round neck, and worn tucked into shorts. It was donned by several famous British athletes who often left behind the most inspiring of stories, both on and off the field. 

Athletes such as Eric Liddell. Liddell was a natural athlete. Born to Scottish parents in Qing China at the turn of the 20th century, he excelled in both rugby and athletics when he was at school. While at the University of Edinburgh, he became known as the fastest runner in Scotland and was even called up to play in Scotland’s national rugby team.

His true calling though, was in running as it turns out. The “Flying Scotsman”, they called him. His speed and dedication earned him a place on the Great Britain Olympics track and field team for the 1924 Summer Olympics in Paris. But Liddell, was also a God-fearing man. Although he trained hard and had his mind set on competing in the 100 metres event, his best event, the heat he had to run was on a Sunday, the Lord’s day, and he famously refused to run that heat, forcing him to withdraw. 

His conviction, whilst admirable, was not universally respected. After all, it was the run of his life. Liddell didn’t allow this set back to deter him though. In the next few months he trained for the 400 metre race instead, despite the event not being his specialty. The 400-metre was a middle-distance event in which runners ran round the first bend before taking the foot off the pedal and ran at a reduced speed through to the end. 

In the morning of his race, a member of this support team handed him a note which read "He that honours me, I will honour" – a reference to a Biblical passage 1 Samuel 2:30. Liddell was deeply moved by the fact that there was at least one person on his team that supported his decision to give up the race to worship on on Sunday. Inspired by this passage and having drawn the outside lane, so he was not able to see the other runners’ progress in any case, Liddell ran the entire 400 metres as a complete sprint from beginning to end. His competitors challenged him in the final leg of the race all the way down, but he held on to take the win. Liddell broke the Olympic and world record at the time, completing the race in 47.6 seconds.

“He that honours me, I will honour” indeed. 

Although an incredibly talented athlete, Liddell returned to China to serve as a missionary after the Olympics, following in the footsteps of his parents. When war broke out in China with the invading imperial Japanese force, Liddell refused to leave the country against the advice of the British government, opting instead to join his brother in Xiaozhang, a rural area where a mission station was set up to help the needy. The station was so understaffed and overrun with the sick that Liddell’s brother fell ill and Liddell himself barely survived the crushing responsibility.

To make matters worse, as fighting intensified, Liddell was put in prison by the Japanese troops in 1943 with other missionaries and local Chinese. Despite remarkable hardship, Liddell gave himself completely over to others, helping the elderly, tending to the sick, teaching children and making arrangements at the camp so that any scarce resources could be shared equally. He died at the camp in February 1945 from a brain tumor and exhaustion aged 43, months before liberation.

When asked whether he missed the glamour and fame of his past as a star athlete whilst serving in China, he would say, “I'm glad I'm at the work I'm engaged in now. A fellow's life counts for far more at this than the other.”

Our extrafine merino sport shirt pays homage to the sport shirts favoured by Eric Liddell and his fellow Olympians in the 1920s - with their longer short sleeves, knitted construction in a durable heavy cotton wool blend, and rugged elegance - a reflection of the tough, gritty, competitive character, yet gentlemanly demeanour and strong personal convictions of the athletes from that era. Gifted, yet grounded men who put others before themselves and saw that there was more to life than fame.

Other notable athletes that wore the sport shirt included the likes of legends such as Harold Abrahams, Guy Butler, John Ainsworth-Davis, Robert Lindsay, and Cecil Griffiths, the last four were members of the Team GB relay team that won gold in the 1920 Olympics.