Harold Abrahams and Eric Liddell – the legends behind the film 'Chariots of Fire'

·4 min read
British sprinter Harold Abrahams (left) crosses the finish line to win the 100 yards race at the AAA Championships. (PHOTO: Central Press/Getty Images)
British sprinter Harold Abrahams (left) crosses the finish line to win the 100 yards race at the AAA Championships. (PHOTO: Central Press/Getty Images)

By Hong Zhenyuan

British track and field athletes Harold Abrahams and Eric Liddell won gold in the 100m and 400m sprints respectively at the 1924 Paris Olympics, and Liddell remains the last British athlete to win the 400m gold. Their story was adapted into the film "Chariots of Fire", but the true story of their experiences is even more magnificent than the film.

"Chariots of Fire" was released in 1981 and won Oscars for Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay, Best Original Score and Best Costume Design. Its soundtrack topped a number of music charts, with the theme song becoming ubiquitous at sporting events big and small; it also appeared in numerous films and adverts. It remains popular today, so even if you haven’t see the film, chances are you have heard this classic tune.

Abrahams was a Scot of Jewish descent, and specialised in the 100m and 400m sprints as well as the long jump. He had achieved less-than-stellar results at the previous Olympics, but hired a professional athletics coach to improve his skills. This was also the first example of a British amateur competitor hiring a private coach.

Liddell, on the other hand, was a devout Christian born in the Chinese city of Tianjin. He was supposed to run in the 100m at the Paris Olympics, but as the heats took place on Sunday, the day of rest for Christians, he withdrew and switched to the 400m event.

The film uses more than a little dramatic licence with this storyline, as in real life, Liddell knew the event was to be held on a Sunday well before he departed for France, and the process was a lot less confrontational than what was depicted in the film. The schedule of the events was announced well ahead of time, and Liddell spent about three to four months training for the 400m.

Abrahams remained Britain’s last 100m gold medal winner until Allan Wells at the Moscow Olympics in 1980 (although the UK boycotted that Olympics, individual athletes were allowed to enter under their own names).

After switching to the 400m, Liddell also won gold, and remains the last British athlete to do so. He also won bronze in the 200m, while Abrahams won silver in the 4x100m relay.

Liddell’s results before the Paris Olympics were not up to international level, but he managed to claim the top spot of the Olympic podium nevertheless. Before the final, one of the team’s physiotherapists handed him a note containing a quote from the Bible, “Those who honour me I will honour”.

Eric Liddell winning the 400m finals at the 1924 Paris Olympic Games (PHOTO: George Rinhart/Corbis via Getty Images)
Eric Liddell winning the 400m finals at the 1924 Paris Olympic Games (PHOTO: George Rinhart/Corbis via Getty Images)

The meaning of the quote is that God will honour whose who honour God. Liddell was able to make the necessary changes because he took his faith so seriously, and this allowed him to be rewarded for what he had put into his endeavour.

After retiring, Abrahams served as captain of the British team in the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics and editor of the Official British Olympic Report for the same Games. He worked as a sports reporter for 40 years and published many books before passing away in 1978.

He is highly regarded among Jewish sportspeople and was inducted into the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in 1981 and the England Athletics Hall of Fame in 2009.

Liddell returned to China to work as a missionary a year after the Paris Olympics. He stayed at his post despite the risk of war and was later interned by the Japanese army. He died of a brain tumour in 1945 while being held at the Weixian Internment Camp. There is a sculpture of him and a monument at the former location of the camp.

Due to the war and the long time that had passed, it was difficult to locate Liddell’s grave for many years, but Charles Walker, a Scottish engineer working in Hong Kong, found the location in 1989 with the help of historical records and drawings from former inmates. An agreement was made with the local government to erect a tombstone and create a memorial garden, and a fund was established in Liddell’s name to help runners from China, Hong Kong and Britain.

Liddell’s alma mater, the University of Edinburgh, donated the tombstone and, in 2012, set up a scholarship in his name, while the campus also has a community service centre named after him. When the first vote for the Scottish Sports Hall of Fame was held in 2002, Liddell was voted the most popular sports hero of all time.

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