We’ve all done it, made a majestic sprint to the school sports day finish line (proudly coming in fifth), or dashed to the biscuit tin before the last Jaffa Cake was swiped – all with the synth beat of Vangelis’ iconic score for the 1981 Oscar-winning film, Chariots of Fire playing in our heads.
But does anyone remember the heroics of Harold Abrahams, the Jewish track and field athlete that inspired the film? Along with Eric Liddell, the pair made history by winning gold at the 1924 Paris Olympics.
The stories of British runners Eric Liddell and Harold Abrahams are the backbone of the film’s triumph over adversity tale. As the movie tells it, Liddell (Ian Charleson) was boarding a boat to the 1924 Paris Olympics when he discovered that the qualifying heats for his event, the 100m sprint, were scheduled for a Sunday. A devout Christian, he refused to run on the Sabbath and was at the last minute switched to the 400m. He goes on to win gold, against all the odds.
Abrahams’s (Ben Cross) religion is also a strong force in the film, which links the discrimination he faced as a Jew with his motivation to win Olympic gold in Paris. As well as being University of Cambridge undergraduate, he had already represented Britain at the 1920 Olympics in Belgium.
Abrahams’ father, Isaac, was a Jewish immigrant from Poland and worked as a financier. Harold was born in Bedford, and was the younger brother of another British athlete, the Olympic long jumper Sir Sidney Abrahams. His drive to win in Paris was also fuelled by his desire to redeem his loss four years earlier and by his rivalry with his older brother who had competed at the 1912 Stockholm Games. Another sibling, Sir Adolphe Abrahams, was a medical doctor and is regarded as the founder of sport medicine.
Abrahams suffered an injury in 1925 that ended his athletic career. He later became an attorney, radio broadcaster (even reporting from 1936 Berlin Olympics), and sports administrator and served as chairman of the British Amateur Athletics Board, as well as becoming president of the Jewish Athletics Association. He wrote widely about athletics and was the author of a number of books, including ‘The Olympic Games, 1896–1952’.
After his 1924 win, he used part of the gold from his medal to make a wedding ring for this fianceé, Sybil Evers. Though the couple never had children, they did adopt, and elected to foster Jewish child refugees during the Second World War. When Sybil died in 1963, Harold set up an award in her memory, the Sybil Abrahams Memorial Trophy, which is presented by the Duke of Edinburgh at Buckingham Palace every year to the best British female athlete.
So, we’ve mimed the slow-motion run and 900 million of us watched Rowan Atkinson spoof Chariots of Fire’s famous beach race at the opening ceremony of London 2012, proving that Harold Abrahams’ legacy continues to live on through his achievements. Perhaps the most famous Jewish athlete in British history, it’s not every day that someone gets a film made about them. Now, just who will play Mo Farah in the movie…?