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 jesse owens
Abrahams with Jesse Owens at the 1936 Berlin olympics

Striding ahead

For Abrahams, the 100m gold had been the greatest prize of all, and it was achieved through a revolutionary, scientific approach to training.

“I think that in my day I probably trained harder than anybody,” Abrahams explained. “I was always interested in the scientific side of it. I was probably the first person who said that length of stride isn’t speed. In fact speed is length of stride multiplied by the rapidity with which you take them.

I found, after experiment, that my best running came from 7ft 3in. If I take 45 strides in 10 seconds and an inch less at each stride I shall lose 3ft 9in. But if this enables me to put another stride into the same number of seconds of running, I gain 7ft 3in, or a net gain of 3ft 6in.”    

Stat attack

This was the sort of precision that helped Abrahams win in Paris. It also aggravated his obsession with statistics. Later in life he carried two stopwatches everywhere and timed everything – even how long it took him to go to the toilet. This may well have been the athletic equivalent of post-traumatic stress syndrome.

Mussabini took Abrahams’ running action apart, then put it back together again using the ‘slow cinematograph’ method. Abrahams recalled, “By photographing movements at the rate of about 150 exposures per second, and throwing the film on to the screen at the rate of about 16 exposures per second, we are able to see all movement analysed down to a series of primary actions.”

His start, finish and criss-cross arm action were improved just enough to clinch Olympic victory.

Beyond the tape

A year after his historic moment, Abrahams slipped on a loose take-off board during a long-jump, broke his leg and sustained massive muscle and ligament damage. He never raced again.

But his influence on British running didn’t stop there. He moved on to work in athletics administration and broadcasting. His emotional 1936 radio commentary on Jack Lovelock’s Olympic 1500m victory in Berlin broke the mould and paved the way for live sports commentary as we know it today.

And it was loaded with even more significance: a mentally fragile man of Jewish origin, tortured by personal demons, travels to Nazi Berlin in a swastika-covered train, steps into Hitler’s Olympic arena and broadcasts one of the most iconic sports commentaries of all time, celebrated for its quirky individuality and its imperfect humanity – both things Hitler hated. Not even the vivid imaginations of the Chariots creators could have conjured that one up.

Legacy off the track

Abrahams spent more than 50 years as ‘Mr Athletics’ in Britain and beyond, popularising and modernising the sport while acting as mentor to many a future world-beater. He also found time to earn a CBE for his work in setting up Britain’s National Parks, enjoyed by so many runners to this day.

Athletics was always his first love though – and he served the sport all his life. In the sprints, Abrahams campaigned for the introduction of electronic timing and hi-tech photo-finishes. For the 800m, he called for lanes in the early part of the race. He also designed a sensible Olympic qualifying structure, so the Games wasn’t absurdly overpopulated and ruined by endless heats.

After the World War, Abrahams defended the Olympic movement, when many wanted it killed off to prevent excessive nationalism. And despite initially being opposed to women’s athletics, by the 1950s he had become one of its most passionate supporters – campaigning tirelessly until events such as the 400m and 800m became regular women’s  events at the Olympics.

Athletics legends such as Lovelock, four-minute-miler Roger Bannister and former 880-yard world record holder Valerie Ball all had reason to thank Abrahams. He gave them the benefit of his experience and helped them to harness the mental strength they needed to make a lasting impact.

The big 'what if'

One big question remains though: would Harold Abrahams have possessed the mental strength to beat Eric Liddell in that 100m final, had the Flying Scotsman’s religious convictions allowed him to face his English rival on that humid day in Paris? Abrahams never stopped asking himself. And his uncertainty is telling.

“I have often wondered whether I owe my Olympic success, at least in part, to Eric’s religious beliefs. Had he run in that event, would he have defeated me and won that Olympic title?”

If races are won and lost in the mind, Abrahams could probably count himself lucky that we’ll never know the answer to his question. Ultimately though, it doesn’t really matter. It’s Abrahams’ name in the history books, the winner of the ‘Blue Riband’ event. He is the man of our great Olympic moment. And, like Liddell, he had more than earned his starring role in that beautiful film – the one they sadly didn’t live to see.

Harold Abrahams: The Mentor

After Paris and before Chariots of Fire, Abrahams helped many athletes achieve greatness, including...

Godfrey Rampling: When he wanted to give up because of health problems, Abrahams encouraged him to persevere. Rampling went on to run one of the great 400m relay legs of all time (in 46.7), leading Team GB to gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

Jack Lovelock: The New Zealand miler became a close personal friend of Abrahams, who never ceased to champion his cause. Abrahams produced the iconic radio commentary when Lovelock won the 1500m in Berlin.

Roger Bannister: After breaking the four-minute mile at Iffley Road, Oxford, in May 1954, Bannister wrote to Abrahams, “You have played such a large part in the success I have achieved – as my guide, my philosopher and my friend.”

Valerie Ball: Abrahams gave Valerie Ball (later Valerie Winn) practical coaching and constant encouragement until, in 1952, she broke the 880 yards world record at White City, London, in 2:14.5 “I don’t think I ever appreciated how clever he was,” she said later.

Lynn Davies: A few days after taking the Olympic long jump title in Tokyo in 1964, the Welshman wrote to Abrahams, “As one long-jumper of bygone years to another, may I thank you for your help during the last decade.”

The Film Chariots of Fire v Reality

Who really were the key players in the story?

In the film: Sybil Gordon, Opera singer
Abrahams’ girlfriend in Chariots, who scolds him when he doubts himself. In reality, the opera singer – whose name was Sybil Evers – only came into Abrahams’ life 10 years later.

Not in the film: Christina McLeod Innes
Abrahams’ real-life romance while they were both at Cambridge. Abrahams called off their engagement in 1922 under pressure from his brothers, who wanted him to concentrate on athletics.

In the film: Sir John J. Thompson (Master of Trinity College, Cambridge) and Hugh K. Anderson
(Master of Caius College, Cambridge)
They were both in Chariots, and John Gielgud’s portrayal of Sir John was particularly memorable. These were real people, yet there’s little evidence that they confronted Abrahams in any negative, anti-Semitic way.

Not in the film: Geoffrey Fisher
Later Archbishop of Canterbury, Fisher was headmaster of the Derbyshire public school Repton when Abrahams was there. Harold’s nephew Tony Abrahams claimed, “Fisher was an anti-Semite who stopped Abrahams from reading school prayers just because he was Jewish – even though Harold wanted to do it.”

Not in the film: Adolphe and Sidney Abrahams
Abrahams’ controlling eldest brother Adolphe was one of his biggest influences and wouldn’t let him give up athletics when he wanted to settle down with Christina. Sidney was also very influential, an Olympic long jumper who Abrahams desperately wanted to emulate.

In the film: Tom Watson
The New Zealand sprinter didn’t exist.

Not in the film: Arthur Porritt
The New Zealander who shared Harold Abrahams’ hut with him before the 100m final but refused to have his name associated with the film.

In the film: Lord Andrew Lindsay
Another fictitious character and supposed Cambridge contemporary of Abrahams, but based loosely on a real person…

Not in the film: Lord Burghley (David Exeter)
An aristocratic hurdler who didn’t distinguish himself at the 1924 Games, but won gold in 1928 at the Amsterdam Olympics. He went to Cambridge just after Abrahams, rather than with him.

Distorted: Evelyn Aubrey Montague
Known as Evelyn in reality but Aubrey in the film, he became Chariots producer David Puttnam’s ‘everyman’ narrator because he knew his human limitations. Evelyn went to Oxford not Cambridge, did indeed finish sixth in the steeplechase at 1924 Olympics, but without falling dramatically at the water jump.

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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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