They have already made one famous film about runner Harold Abrahams, the Oscar-winning Chariots of Fire, but the rest of his life contained enough fascinating detail to make another. It all started on this day in 1924, however, when the British athlete shocked the world by winning the 100m sprint.
Ask British people if they remember who Harold Abrahams was, and many will draw a blank. Ask them about the film Chariots of Fire, however, and you will get plenty of patriotic answers. The 1981 film is perennially ranked in lists of the nation’s favourite movies, with its stirring tale of Olympic runners overcoming the odds, and an Academy Award-winning soundtrack.
Abrahams – who won the 100m gold medal on this day, 7 July, at the Olympic Games Paris 1924 – was essentially half of the story. A Cambridge University student from a high-achieving family, Abrahams defeated the strong US favourite, Charley Paddock, to triumph in the Games’ blue riband event.
But it was external events that made the tale so fascinating. His teammate, Eric Liddell, was thought to be even faster than Abrahams but, as a devout Christian, he refused to run the race because it was held on the Sabbath.
Resisting intense pressure to take part, Liddell later found his own glory by grabbing gold in the 400m. The pair returned home as heroes, with Abrahams – who was Jewish, born to Polish-Lithuanian immigrant parents – helping the fight against prejudice.
“As an athlete, he was ahead of his time scientifically,” said Mark Ryan, author of Running With Fire: The True Story of Chariots of Fire Hero Harold Abrahams. “He had a large amount of natural ability, of course, but he really made the best of himself. With his coach Sam Mussabini, he dismantled his running style and rebuilt it all again. He used slow cinematography to analyse everything, especially his start. He added another stride to his 100m, and really thought about his technique.
“It paid off when it mattered, like in the 1924 final, because Harold was a very nervous person, suffering greatly before races. He was too intelligent for his own good sometimes. The last thing Mussabini said to him before the final in 1924 was: ‘Only think of two things – the report of the pistol, and the tape. When you hear one, run like hell until you reach the other.’ He just had to get Harold to stop thinking by that point.”
Abrahams had almost missed the final. In the semi, on the same day, he had wrongly believed there to be a false start, putting everyone else a yard or two ahead of him. “He still won, and he later regarded it as his greatest race ever,” Ryan said. “And because he’d won that semi-final without panicking, he knew that he was going to win the final later on, too.”
Abrahams also drew on the negativity of anti-Semitism as a motivating factor. “Abrahams never denied his origins but he hated being pigeonholed, and even joined a Christian student society,” Ryan said. “He did suffer from anti-Semitism at public school, and he used it to develop a chip on his shoulder.
“In Paris, he could hear the American crowd chanting for their athlete and it made him feel alienated. He drew upon the way being a Jew had made him feel alienated in his life, and it drove him on.”
Just as he did in his quarter-final and semi-final, Abrahams broke the tape in 10.6 seconds, which equalled the Olympic record at the time, to become Europe’s first Olympic 100m champion. The reaction back home was huge. “They didn’t have the mass media of now but Abrahams was still very famous,” Ryan said. “He was like the David Beckham of his time.”
His rivalry with Liddell continued, however. “They both thought that the other’s running style was complete rubbish,” Ryan said with a laugh. “Liddell thought Harold’s style was too manufactured. And Liddell always won when they raced, although they never ran a 100m against each other.”
They never really had the chance. Following injury aged 25, the year after Paris, Abrahams did not defend his title at the Amsterdam Games of 1928. Instead, he busied himself with numerous other successful careers – he was the first secretary of the International Board, which was the forerunner of the British Amateur Athletic Board; he captained Great Britain’s team in Amsterdam; he wrote books, was President of the Jewish Athletic Association; and, most famously, he became a BBC commentator. Abrahams’ enthusiastic and knowledgeable voice became a favourite among athletics fans in the United Kingdom.
He still faced obstacles, however. “Unbelievably, for Berlin 1936, the BBC decided not to send Harold to work because they didn’t want to offend Hitler,” Ryan said. “There are BBC memos saying: ‘We don’t think it’s right that Jews are discriminated against, but these Germans think differently, it’d be rude.’
“Meanwhile, the Jewish community were condemning Harold for going out there. But Harold decided to go anyway, supposedly as an assistant manager on the Olympic team, and he did eventually commentate freelance for the BBC. They denied him the chance to commentate on Jesse Owens, which he would have loved. Instead, he got the 1500m final, won by Jack Lovelock, a friend of Harold’s from New Zealand.
“Harold completely broke the mould of sports commentary that day by cheering wildly about the win, which wasn’t the done thing at the time. He got very emotionally involved – and it was partly as a protest because Hitler was sitting close to the press box, and this was his way of sticking two fingers up at him.”
Abrahams stayed in the public eye later, too. He married famous opera singer Sybil Evers, and the pair adopted two children. Before the war, they also fostered two Jewish refugee children. The couple’s wedding ring, according to their daughter Sue, was made from gold clippings removed from his 1924 medal.
His influence on British athletics continued until his death in 1978. That fateful day in 1924 remained the moment that made Abrahams. “Weeks before his death, he sent a letter to one of Sam Mussabini’s relatives saying how much what Sam had done for him in 1924 meant to him, and how much he owed him,” Ryan said. “All those years later, one day was still defining his life.”