Life & Culture

Television: Chariots of Fire and the real Harold Abrahams story


It is a theme tune that has almost passed into cliche. As soon as you hear Vangelis’s Chariots of Fire music, it is impossible to stop yourself running in slow motion towards an imaginary tape.

The 1981 Oscar-winning movie is almost certainly the only reason most of us have heard of the names Harold Abrahams and Eric Liddell, who won the 100 metres and 400 metres respectively at the 1924 Paris Olympics.
But what of the real athletes? Nigel Havers, who was one of the stars of the film, set off in search of them in this documentary.

The most fascinating aspect was to see the two men as they really were. There was footage of Abrahams going through his training routines. He looked like a slightly more athletic and slightly less good-looking version of Ben Cross, who played him in the film.

The movie had it that Abrahams was a victim of antisemitism while a student at Cambridge. In reality, he suffered mainly at the hands of a teacher at Repton public school. Yet there is no doubt that Abrahams had a chip on his shoulder — and his self-esteem would not have been helped by the official British Olympic outfit he wore on his way to Paris. The trousers were too short and the jacket comically large. He further noted, in an interview recorded in 1968, that when he won his race, unlike in the film, there was “no victory ceremony, no national anthem and no presentation of medals, which was actually sent on several weeks later by post”.

The Paris Olympics was like a village tea party compared to London 2012. Only 344 athletes from 44 countries showed up. But the footage of Abrahams and Liddell racing was compelling and the performances, for their day, were outstanding. Abrahams, in his autobiography, commented that when he heard the chanting for the American runner Charlie Paddock before his race, he felt the same kind of rejection as when subjected to antisemitism at school, and it had spurred him on.

Havers, who narrated with his customary charm, described how Abrahams went on to be a BBC commentator and controversially covered the 1936 Berlin Olympics much to the dismay of many in the Jewish community. His daughter Sue Pottle revealed that at one stage he had sat very near to Hitler. “I wish I’d shot him,” he said.
Ultimately the programme demonstrated that the film had done a pretty good job of telling the story, but to an athletics nerd like me, it was gripping.

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