Photo Credit: Jewish Press

A striking film about the achievement of victory through self-sacrifice and moral courage, Chariots of Fire – the phrase is from 2 Kings 2:11 and 6:17 – is based upon the true story of two British athletes in the 1924 Olympics: Eric Liddell (played by Ian Charleson), a devout Scottish Presbyterian who runs for the glory of God, and Harold Abrahams (played by Ben Cross), a non-observant Jew who runs to overcome antisemitism. Nominated for seven 1981 Academy Awards, it won four, including one for Best Picture and one for its unforgettable Best Original Score by Vangelis.

Formal portrait of Abrams hanging in the National Portrait Gallery.

As the film tells the story, Abrahams enters the University of Cambridge in 1919, where he immediately faces antisemitism but, as a gifted and dedicated runner, he perseveres. He becomes the first person ever to complete the famous Trinity Great Court Run, which requires the student to circle the entire Cambridge courtyard in 12 seconds, and he achieves a perfect record of victories in numerous national races.

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Meanwhile, Liddell, the son of Scottish missionary parents, is temporarily living in Scotland before returning to his missionary duties in China. A man with a devout Christian heart, he pursues competitive racing because “I believe that G-d made me for a purpose. But He also made me fast, and when I run, I feel His pleasure.”

In their first race against each other, Liddell beats Abrahams, who responds as a sore loser but is inspired to do better. When he hires Sam Mussabini, a French Arab and a professional trainer – the film does not mention that the introduction was actually made by Liddell – two Cambridge professors characterize his using a “tradesman” as “unseemly” and accuse him of making the amateur spirit of sports subservient to his own personal interests. Abrahams, however, understands their objection as a manifestation of the University’s antisemitism and its discomfort with seeing a Jew succeed on the world stage.

After many years of intense training, the two runners are accepted to represent Great Britain in the 1924 Olympics in Paris. However, while boarding the boat to France, Liddell learns that initial heats for his 100-meter race are scheduled for Sunday, his Sabbath day. In the face of media criticism of his lack of patriotism and of unremitting brutal pressure, he remains true to his faith and refuses to compete, generating international headlines and worldwide admiration.

Photograph of Abrahams winning the 100-meter race at the 1924 Olympic Games in Paris.

In an incredible act of selflessness and love, one of his teammates who had already medaled in a previous race sacrifices his slot in the 400-meter hurdles to Liddell. Meanwhile, Abrahams is soundly thrashed by the heavily favored American runners in the 200-meter race but he wins the gold medal in his final race in the 100-meters. Although Liddell has little chance of winning the much longer 400-meter race, for which he has not trained, he defeats the favored Americans – to the tune of Vangelis’s inspiring score – and wins the gold medal.

Though the film is mostly historically accurate, there are several “creative changes” introduced by the filmmakers. For example, as to Abrahams, he never ran around the perimeter of the Great Court at Trinity College, let alone set the record; for dramatic effect, the film reverses the order of his 100-meter and 200-meter races at the Olympics. Actually, after winning gold in the 100 meters (and becoming the first non-American to win the event), he finished last in the 200 meters; he also won silver for the 4×100 meters, which is not shown in the film.

As to Liddell, the account of his refusal to race on Sunday is fictional; he actually learned months earlier that his race was scheduled for Sunday, though he did face monumental pressure to compete in the race. Moreover, he actually did run in the 200-meter race, finishing third, the only time that he and Abrahams competed in the same race (their meeting in the 1923 Championship was a fabrication in the film).

Harold Maurice Abrahams (1899-1978) was born in Bedford, England, after his father, Isaac Klonimus, a Lithuanian Jew, escaped the pogroms of Russia-occupied Poland to settle in Britain. (He changed his name to Abrahams there.) He initially ran a stall in Bedford market, but he rose to found the Bedfordshire Loan Company, which made him wealthy. After separating from his Welsh wife, Ester, when Harold was an adolescent, he sent his son to a Jewish school in Brighton to prepare him for his bar mitzvah.

After Abrahams was caught at age 14 attempting to board a troop carrier to go war in 1914 – he later joined the Cadet Battalion toward the end of WWI, but never saw action – he was sent to the Repton School in Derbyshire, a prominent boarding school, where he won the 100-yard dash and long jump. He continued his athletic career while studying at Cambridge from 1919 to 1923, during which time he served as president of the Cambridge University Athletics Club and as a member of the Achilles track and field club.

There is a fascinating mixed and even contradictory record regarding the role that antisemitism played in Abrahams’s life in general and his athletic motivation and career in particular. As depicted in the film, Abrahams is deeply affected by the antisemitism of British society, though we never see him engaging publicly or privately in any Jewish activity. Seeing his Jewishness as a social handicap to be overcome, he runs competitively to gain acceptance.

According to most commentators, there is no question that although the dressing down he received from the Cambridge authorities as portrayed in the film was entirely fictional, Abrahams had been subjected to antisemitism at Bedford public school which, at the very least, played a role in motivating his athletic successes. In his autobiography, he notes that when he heard the audience cheering for American runner Charlie Paddock before his Olympic race, he felt the same rejection that he had experienced at public school, which only made him more determined to win. When his fiancé responded with laughter to his claim that he considers athletics a weapon against antisemitism, he replied that as a non-Jew she could never understand.

Many years after Abrahams won his gold medal, Phillip Noel-Baker, who shared a room with him during the 1924 Olympics, wrote to a friend that “immediately after the [Olympic] games, Harold came to stay with me [and said] on the first day ‘You must not mind if I swank about winning in Paris, I was so kicked round at Repton for being a Jew that I now react too personally and too much.’” Noel-Baker adds that he had not previously even heard of the term “antisemitism” until Abrahams explained it to him.

On the other hand, there is considerable evidence that far from being the Jewish “outsider,” as portrayed in Chariots of Fire, Abrahams’ Anglicization began while he was still at school; he joked that “I lost my Jewishness the first time I smelled bacon and eggs at Repton.” He formally converted to Catholicism in 1934 and, according to his adopted daughter, his decision to become Christian “was influenced by his need for acceptance beyond the Jewish community.” Thus, his turning away from his Jewish identity was less a function of being rejected than of doing the rejecting, as he craved acceptance amongst the elites of British society, which came to characterize his life far more than his Jewishness.

Indeed, as time progressed, his Jewish origins came to mean ever less to him, as his assimilation increased along with his athletic success. As he explained at a dinner sponsored by the Maccabean Society, when he became the youngest Jew ever so honored, Jewish religious practice, including particularly the Sabbath laws, would have prevented him from competing in key athletic events. In fact, he even wrote an article in an Anglo-Jewish publication in the 1920s in which he specifically encouraged English Jews to ignore Jewish Sabbath restrictions:

One must make it clear that a strict adherence to Judaism would prevent one from participating in Saturday competitions and, as a result, the “strict” Jews could never hope to attain international recognition, since at a conservative estimate ninety percent of important competitions are held on a Saturday afternoon. A religion that is one’s philosophy of life (or theistic views) has little if anything to do with the qualities which characterize an athlete.

Thus, in what Meir Soloveitchik aptly refers to as “the terrible Jewish irony that lies at the heart of Chariots of Fire,” while Abrahams with nary a thought disposes of his Jewish faith in favor of assimilation, Liddell lives for his Christian faith and makes great sacrifices to support it. I am certainly not the only Orthodox Jew who is inspired more by the earnest and ever-faithful Christian, who embraces his faith and runs for the glory of G-d, than by the faithless and self-involved Jew, who uses his running as a tool to transcend his Jewish identity.

New Zealander Arthur Porritt, one of Abrahams’s challengers in the famous 1924 Olympics 100-meter final, later criticized Chariots of Fire for its inaccurate and overly Jewish depiction of Abrahams: “I would have never imagined that his (Abrahams) burning motivation for success was Judaism.” Moreover, Abrahams’s daughter frequently criticized the film for its over-emphasis on antisemitism.

At the end of the day, Abrahams was committed to neither Christianity nor Judaism but, rather, to athletics and to himself. Nonetheless, his alienation from Judaism was such that by 1936, when he created great controversy over his stance on the Berlin Olympics, he was condemned for having lost all attachment to the community of his birth.

A year after winning gold in Paris, Abrahams broke his leg while attempting to improve on his English long jump record, which lasted for over 30 years, thus ending his athletic career. He did, however, continue to champion amateur sports in England, particularly in the Jewish community, and he captained Great Britain’s team in the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics.

Abrahams also distinguished himself as sport correspondent for the Sunday Times, as a founding member of the Association of Track & Field Statisticians, as Chairman of the British Athletic Board (1948 – 1975), and as President of the Amateur Athletics Association (1976), and he played a leading role in modernizing sports rules and practices and promoting athletic opportunities for women. However, he was accused of rank hypocrisy in many quarters for his crusading advocacy in support of maintaining strict amateurism in competitive sports after he himself had retained a professional coach to help him win his medals in the 1924 Games.

Abrahams broadcasting for the BBC.

Abrahams also qualified as a barrister and practiced law from 1924 to 1940, but he became particularly renowned and beloved as a broadcaster with the BBC – his first broadcast was in March 1924 – for whom he pioneered sports commentary and where his mellifluous voice became a favorite across the United Kingdom. He also served as president of the Jewish Athletic Association and during the Holocaust, he and his wife, the famous opera singer Sybil Evers, adopted two Jewish refugee children.

In February 1936, the BBC faced a difficult quandary: whether to risk insulting Hitler by sending Olympic gold medalist and noted sports broadcaster Harold Abrahams to Berlin to cover the Olympics. Ultimately, the decision was made to permit Abrahams to go, but only after Britain first “warned” the Germans that he was coming, and Abrahams’s broadcast, particularly his unabashed enthusiasm and cheering as a fan, set a new standard for live sports commentary.

Abrahams, who sat in the press box close to Hitler, upset the führer with his unrestrained and vociferous rooting against the German athletes. It was his way of protesting the Third Reich and, according to his daughter, he later said “I wish I’d shot him.”

Nonetheless, the group perhaps most upset by Abrahams’s presence in Berlin was not the Nazis but, ironically, the Anglo-Jewish community, which condemned him for supporting “the Nazi Olympics.” Jews were particularly upset about Abrahams’s argument in 1935 that boycotting the Olympics would not only unnecessarily harm athletic ties to Germany, but also harm international relations, and they also took issue with his contention that a boycott would affect innocent competitors and individuals, while not improving the situation of German Jews and possibly even harming them. After the Olympics, Jews also held him partially responsible for facilitating a great victory for Hitler and his beloved propagandist filmmaker, Leni Riefenstahl, who used footage of the Olympics to generate positive publicity for the Third Reich.

In this March 11, 1931, correspondence on his law office stationery, Abrahams writes:

It was very kind of you to trouble to write your appreciation of my broadcast. Tisdall’s record is of course better than mine – I was lucky enough to win three events in 1923. Fry’s long jump was only ½” short of the world’s record when he did it – but the record is now 26 ft!! I was most interested to hear that your son was at Repton. Fry of course was a Reptonian too and in 1918 I made a desperate but unsuccessful attempt to beat his school long jump record. Many thanks for writing..

This rare letter references a number of themes in Abrahams’s life: his law practice; his career as a broadcaster; his athletic victories in 1923 a year before his victories in the 1924 Olympic Games; a discussion of athletic world’s records; and his athletic contests at Repton.

Cricketer C.B. Fry (1872-1956) captained both the cricket and rugby teams at Repton and set other records, as Abrahams notes in the correspondence, and he went on to become a famous professional cricket player. Like Abrahams, Irish runner Bob Tisdall (1907-2004) set several records while at Cambridge, set South African and Canadian records for the 220 yards low hurdles (1929), and set the Greek record a year later.

Chariots of Fire ends with a very Anglican mass for Abrahams’s funeral and, indeed, he was buried in Hetfordshire churchyard (1978) next to his wife, Sybil, who died in 1963. His conversion to Catholicism, however, proved no impediment to his induction into the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in 1981. As Meir Soloveitchik so beautifully writes: “Chariots of Fire unintentionally creates a contrast between our forefather Abraham and Harold Abrahams; it is a tale not only of one Jewish runner, but of Jews throughout our age who ran away from who they were.”

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Saul Jay Singer serves as senior legal ethics counsel with the District of Columbia Bar and is a collector of extraordinary original Judaica documents and letters. He welcomes comments at saul.singer@verizon.net.