Olympic Moment: Harold Abrahams' 100m Gold

You've seen the Chariots of Fire film - now we reveal the truth behind the movie

by Mark Ryan

harold abrahams chariots of fire
Abrahams is congratulated by the future George VI in 1923

Ten seconds of joy

Abrahams kept his promise to Liddell. Having dug his starting holes (there were no blocks in those days) with typical precision, he executed a perfect start in his lucky lane four. The watching Scotsman claimed, “Abrahams never started better in his life and neither Scholz nor Paddock ever headed him.”

At halfway, Abrahams sensed he would win. “I had the supreme feeling of running just a tiny bit faster than the others and, gradually, centimetre by centimetre, drawing away. It was a glorious feeling,” he later recalled.

Abrahams dipped for the tape, just as he had been taught by Mussabini, timing his swoop to perfection. A photograph captured the moment his grimace turned to joy, “thrusting chin and gritted teeth a record of concentrated, dynamic energy,” as one reporter put it.

Ambition of a lifetime

He was Olympic champion – and he had equalled the Olympic record yet again. His time was rounded up to 10.6, even though a one-hundredth-second timer showed 10.52.

“What a pity you’re not American,” said Paddock as he laughed and congratulated his conqueror. “With our training you would certainly have broken the record.” Abrahams could afford to let that provocative comment go.

Surrounded by photographers, he realised he had achieved the “ambition of a lifetime”. He was Britain’s first Olympic 100m
champion and Europe’s first as well.

We will never know if Sam Mussabini stayed outside the stadium and punched a hole in his hat when he saw the Union Jack raised, as the film would have us believe. It seems more likely that Mussabini, cold-shouldered by the GB management team owing to his professional status, simply bought a ticket to watch the action.

We do know that Liddell was almost as delighted for Abrahams as Mussabini. And as Chariots showed, he would taste his own moment of gold medal glory in the 400m a few days later. This
time Abrahams was the thrilled observer.

“I paid my 10 shillings to have a seat near the finish and from the crack of the pistol he ran like a man inspired,” said Abrahams afterwards.

Behind the screens

But what was the real dynamic between the two men who made Chariots such a winner, beyond respect and admiration? In reality, they never did go head to head with each other over 100m, or even over 100 yards for that matter.

When they had the chance, at the 1923 AAA Championships at Stamford Bridge, Abrahams ducked it. He claimed that he was suffering from a sore throat. Yet miraculously he recovered in time to launch himself for a British record 23ft 8in in the long jump later that day. So why was Abrahams so scared of Liddell?

A powerful rival

Because the pair had raced over a longer distance the previous day – and Liddell had destroyed him. Abrahams readily admitted as much: “I realised his power to the full when I had a back view of him in the semi-final of the 220 yards. I ran against him, was well and truly beaten up and did not reach the final.”

Chariots producer Lord (David) Puttnam is happy to explain why he rewrote history to have them meet over 100m: “The contrast between the 100m and 400m, the distance to which Liddell switched in order to win his Olympic gold, was much cleaner and more dramatic than if we had stuck to the reality of their races over 200m – and had subsequently seen Liddell move up to the 400m.”

Historical inaccuracies

The film was right to show that Liddell’s emergence and Abrahams’ defeat in their domestic showdown led to Abrahams having a crisis of confidence, though. However there’s some more poetic licence on-screen when an opera singer called Sybil Gordon scolds Abrahams for his weakness.

“If I can’t win, I won’t run,” he says childishly. “If you don’t run you can’t win,” she hits back. An opera singer called Sybil was indeed the love of Abrahams’ life, but she arrived on the scene some 10 years later.

And Sybil Evers, who became his wife in 1936, was a far gentler and more patient person than his rather steely romantic interest in the film. In reality, Christina McLeod Innes was Abrahams’ serious girlfriend at Cambridge University.

“We knew Harold had a girlfriend at university, though I didn’t know her name,” admits Puttnam. “But we brought Sybil forward in time because she seemed such an exotic character that it was irresistible.”

So was the notion of Abrahams paying Mussabini to coach him while still at Cambridge. In fact, they didn’t team up until the autumn of 1923, by which time Abrahams had left university. But screenplay writer Colin Welland wanted a device to illustrate the snobbery and prejudice of Cambridge, and Abrahams’ fictitious early recruitment of Mussabini seemed ideal – even though in real life Mussabini came from a more distinguished family than Abrahams.

“We took all sorts of liberties,” admits the film’s director, Hugh Hudson. “But it was a film.”

Those close to Abrahams believe he would have been most annoyed at being given credit for running round Trinity College’s Great Court before the Big Clock struck 12. This feat was in fact achieved by his great friend David Exeter, Lord Burghley, a few years later.

But overall Abrahams would have been delighted with the purity of sporting spirit recaptured by Chariots and the acclaim it received. “I think he would have been pretty pleased with the Oscar,” says Puttnam. “Harold liked prizes.”

On the next page: Discover how Abraham's scientific approach to training helped him take gold - and the athletes he helped mentor to greatness. 

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Discuss this article

Great article, as a Chariots of Fire fan of long standing (1981).This is a really good read

Posted: 10/05/2012 at 21:11

Historical bump.

Hope to get the biography of Harold Abrahams (now in paperback) for Fathers Day

Posted: 12/05/2012 at 07:38

A very thorough athlete and had a cracking coach in Sam Mussabini.

Posted: 24/05/2012 at 05:50

Good read, makes me want to go hire CoF on the weekend

Posted: 24/05/2012 at 09:21

There was a documentary on Eric Liddelland Harold Abrahams last night on ITV 9-10pm stumbled onto it at 9pm.


Posted: 03/07/2012 at 06:35

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