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The real chariots of fire

· On the restored film marking London Olympics ·

The occasion of the re-release of David Puttnam and Colin Welland’s extraordinary 1981 film Chariots of Fire , to coincide with the London Olympic Games, recalls the extraordinary lives and heroism of two of the main protagonists. One, the Englishman Harold Abrahams, overcame prejudice and exercised extraordinary physical and mental fortitude to win the 100 m in the Paris 1924 Olympics. The other, Scots missionary Eric Liddell, who refused to compromise his religious beliefs to run on a Sunday (he had to withdraw from the 100 m, his best event), but who triumphed in the 400 m at the same Paris Olympic Games in a world record time. I am not an athlete. But I can lay claim to vicarious connections with both.

Abrahams studied at my own alma mater, Gonville and Caius college, Cambridge. Cambridge is the location for the famous scene in the film when Abrahams and Lord Lindsay (based on the real-life Lord Burghley) run the Trinity Great Court run around the Trinity College Quadrangle, trying to complete the course before the College bell chimes the twelve strokes of midday. In the film, Abrahams succeeds and Lindsay fails. In fact, it was Lord Burghley who succeeded, the only person to have done it until the 1990s. My College, Gonville & Caius, is proud of Abrahams, and his success in overcoming anti-Semitism (including in Cambridge) at the time.

My connection with Liddell is rather different, and runs through my Great Uncle Noel, a man who was larger than life, and who served for many years with the Welsh Regiment of the British Army (having been left at the barracks to start his career as a bugler by his mother, my great grandmother, when he was 12 years old). Noel was a fine athlete, and competed for the army in a number of sports, including in the 400 m. The Welsh Regiment was often posted overseas, principally in Asia, and it was there that he met Liddell.

As recounted to me by my grandmother, Noel was practising one morning in China on the race track, the day before a major athletics championship (it may have been the 1930 North China Championship, or possibly an Inter-Services Games). He ran several laps of the track to warm up. At one point an ungainly red-headed man joined him and asked in a broad Scottish accent if he might run alongside. My great uncle accepted, not in truth very pleased, and they ran round the track in silence for a couple more laps. As they stopped at the finishing line, the red-headed stranger said to Noel, with a smile: “you’re not bad. Tomorrow, I’ll be first, and you’ll be second”.

Great Uncle Noel was not impressed with this remark. “Who does this stranger think he is?”, he thought. Noel was the favourite for the race, and he believed himself a certain winner. What he did not know was that the 1924 Olympic champion, Eric Liddell, was serving as a missionary in China at the time with the London Missionary Society. Liddell had asked the organisers at the last moment if he could participate, and they had of course agreed. He wanted to run a few practice laps to prepare for the event, and it was then that he had met Great Uncle Noel.

On the day of the race, my great uncle was astonished to learn that he was to run against the great Olympic Champion Eric Liddell. And even more surprised when the man who lined up against him at the start was none other than the man who had run with him the day before. Liddell smiled, and acknowledged my great uncle. The gun fired. The athletes set off. Eric Liddell finished first. Great Uncle Noel second.

Eric Liddell was much loved. He spent most of his life in China, and refused to leave his missionary work when the Japanese armies invaded. He was interned in Tianjin in 1943 and, worn out by ministering to his fellow prisoners and their families, died aged 43 at the Weishien Internment Camp on 21 February 1945. In 2008, before the Beijing Olympics, the Chinese authorities revealed that Liddell could have left the camp in a deal the Japanese had made with the British government, but he gave his place to a pregnant woman. The British winner of the 100 m at the 1980 Moscow Olympics, the Scotsman Alan Wells, dedicated his victory to Eric Liddell, and he is honoured with a feast day on 22 February in the liturgical calendar of the u.s. Episcopal church.

As we approach the 2012 London Olympics, we remember our Olympic heroes. For me, the gentle Eric Liddell, who knew he would beat my Great Uncle Noel on a race track in China in the 1930s, before war engulfed them all, is at the top of my list.




St. Peter’s Square

Dec. 15, 2019