The 1981 film Chariots of Fire begins with a group of 30 or so young British athletes running on an English beach, to the sound of Vangelis’ uplifting keyboards. Directed by Hugh Hudson and the winner of four Oscars – Vangelis’ music won an Academy Award of its own – it tells the story of two of those white-shirted athletes, two champions who went down in sporting history at the Olympic Games Paris 1924: Abrahams, an Englishman studying at Cambridge University, and Liddell, a devout Christian from Scotland who was working as a missionary in China.
Abrahams and Liddell were rival sprinters who had made their names by winning a number of races back in the UK. Legend has it that they met once over 100m, with Liddell emerging the winner. The British duo were among the favourites for gold at the Paris Games, where they would come up against the USA’s fabled sprinting stars.
Yet when Liddell learned that January that the opening 100m heats would be held on a Sunday (6 July), he refused to take part on account of the fact that he was a devout Christian and was obliged to observe the Sabbath. From that point on he devoted all his energies to preparing for the 400m.
News of his refusal to compete in the 100m travelled around the world. His decision is at the heart of the screenplay for Hudson’s film, written by Colin Welland, in which the Scottish sprinter only learns of the event programme when sailing across the English Channel in early July. Despite intense pressure to reconsider, he abides by that decision.
Abrahams under no illusions
The 17 first-round heats in the 100m competition thus took place without the Scotsman. Abrahams won his comfortably, as did Charles Paddock of the USA – the defending Olympic champion and world record holder (10.4 seconds in 1921) – and his compatriot Jackson Scholz, the latest rising star of American sprinting. Abrahams, Paddock and Scholz also won their respective quarter-finals that same day.
Taking up the story of what happened next in an interview with the first sub-four-minute miler, Roger Bannister, published in the Olympic Review in autumn 1956, Abrahams said: “I can remember every millimetre of the semi-final. I went to Paris knowing that I was facing four expert American sprinters and really not regarding myself as having much chance of winning.
“In the semi-final I was left at the start and I still managed to win. Many people think that that was the best effort I ever made and they tend to say, ‘Well, what would have happened if you hadn’t been left at the start? Wouldn’t you have done a better time?’ My answer is no, because I produced something that I never would have produced if I hadn’t been left behind.”
In the final on Monday 7 July, a confident Abrahams lined up against the New Zealander Arthur Porritt and four Americans: Paddock, Scholz, Chester Bowman and Loren Muchison. The Briton proved too fast for them all, winning from Scholz and Porritt in a new Games record of 10.6 to become his country’s first Olympic 100m champion. Only two British sprinters have since emulated him: Allan Wells at Moscow 1980, and Linford Christie, against American opposition, at Barcelona 1992.
Liddell from the outside lane
In the meantime, Liddell readied himself to take to the track, with his first appearance coming in the 200m competition, which began on Tuesday 8 July and which also featured Abrahams. When the final came around, the two British sprinters found themselves up against five Americans, among them Scholz, who won in a time of 21.6 from Paddock, with Liddell taking the bronze and Abrahams finishing sixth.
After then easing through the rounds in the 400m competition, the Scotsman was in for something of a shock when he came out for the final: he was handed the outside lane, which meant he would be running “blind”. Though not considered one of the favourites in a field that also contained word record holder Horatio Finch of the USA, Liddell set off fast and maintained his speed.
I ran the first 200m as quickly as I could and, with the help of God, I ran the next 200m even more strongly. Eric Liddell Great Britain - Eric Liddell Great Britain
Speaking to the British newspaper The Guardian years later, he said: “I ran the first 200m as quickly as I could and, with the help of God, I ran the next 200m even more strongly.”
Liddell broke the tape 0.8 seconds ahead of Finch, while the bronze went to Great Britain’s Guy Butler, who later said: “It seemed to us, his rivals, that he ran the whole distance at sprinting pace.” Liddell’s time of 47.6 was an Olympic record, one that stood until Berlin 1936.
Abrahams then teamed up with Wilfred Nichol, Walter Rangeley and Lancelot Royle to win 4x100m silver for Great Britain behind the USA.
Mr Bean pays homage
Following their exploits in Paris and triumphant return home, Liddell and Abrahams went their separate ways. The Scotsman returned to China to continue with his missionary work and died aged 43 in a Japanese internment camp in the city of Tianjin on 21 February 1945, a few short months before the end of the Second World War.
As for Abrahams, he was forced by injury to give up his athletics career in 1925. He captained Great Britain’s Olympic team at Amsterdam 1928 and then went on to work as a journalist for the next 40 years and commentate for the BBC on the Olympic Games. He also wrote several books on the Games.
Abrahams died on 14 January 1978 at the age of 78, and his funeral provides one of the closing scenes of Chariots of Fire, which ends where it begins, with those fresh-faced young athletes running on the beach in preparation for the Paris Olympic Games.
That scene, complete with the original soundtrack, was recreated in amusing fashion by Rowan Atkinson, aka Mr Bean, at the London 2012 Opening Ceremony. Performing with the London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Simon Rattle, the comic actor sat at a keyboard with his finger on C sharp, playing the repetitive note at the start of Vangelis’s signature piece, while occupying his time doing other things.
He then falls asleep and dreams that he is running with the white-shirted athletes on the beach. On being dropped by the bunch, he hitches a lift in a car, overtakes them and jumps out to take the tape first.
All in all, it is a worthy tribute to a timeless film of a true and equally timeless story.