Fifty-seven years before it was immortalised in Chariots of Fire, Harold Abrahams took the tape and GB's first 100m gold. Here's the true story...
It was a sticky Paris Monday – July 7, 1924 – and time was playing tricks in the Stade Colombes. The Olympic 100m final was supposed to start at 6pm, but the runners were told they would have to wait another 60 minutes.
When each hour already seemed like a day, it was almost too much for Harold Abrahams to bear. Since the semi-final, nearly four hours earlier, Abrahams had been suffering. Highly strung, the last thing he needed was extra time to dwell upon the magnitude of the occasion.
A lifelong ambition
Abrahams had been harbouring a lifelong ambition to outdo his brother Sidney, a former Olympic long-jumper, and his chance to realise this dream was so near, yet so far. No wonder he described this extended wait as the worst of his life.
“I felt like a condemned man about to go to the gallows. At six o’clock I was almost at breaking point, still with an hour to go.”
Born an English Jew to a doting mother and bullying father, Abrahams had never quite known inner peace. His father’s wealth had bought Abrahams a privileged education. But the anti-Semitism he suffered at Repton, his public school in Derbyshire, had left deep scars.
As the clock slowly ticked towards 7pm, Abrahams was ushered out of GB dressing room number four and along a corridor into a subterranean tunnel labelled ‘Entrée de la Piste’. The cool walls and their earthy smell were somehow comforting; but the peace didn’t last. He stepped up into a blaze of sunlight and saw 10,000 people pressed close to the cinder track where the final was to be contested.
After nine months of meticulous training with his coach Sam Mussabini, Abrahams’ fate was to be decided in little more than 10 seconds of controlled combat.
Back from the brink
At the forefront of Abrahams’ mind was the near-disaster of his semi-final, when he saw a rival move just before the pistol was fired, and stayed put. The confirmation of a false start never came. And he felt a moment of sheer panic as he realised the race had begun without him.
The Scottish sprinter Eric Liddell witnessed this heart-stopping scene. As anyone who’s seen Chariots of Fire knows, the devout Christian was a mere spectator because the 100m heats had fallen on the Sabbath, and he didn’t want to offend God by running on a Sunday – though in reality Liddell had actually known about the schedule for months before the Games and switched to the 400m accordingly, contrary to the more immediate drama played out in the film.
He hadn’t seen this cruel start to the semi-final coming, though. And he fully appreciated just how unlikely it was that Abrahams would catch his fellow competitors and qualify. After all, they were led by the ‘California Flash’, Charlie Paddock, the Olympic champion who revelled in the title ‘The World’s Fastest Human.’
“No man has ever given Charlie Paddock a start of more than a yard in a 100-yard race and run him out of it,” Liddell later pointed out, forgetting the metric measurements of the Olympics in his excitement. “But Abrahams did it, his terrific finish thrilling the stadium.”
Pushing the boundaries
“I broke the tape inches ahead of the Americans Paddock and Chester Bowman,” recalled Abrahams. “That semi-final was the best piece of running I ever did.” It was also the fastest.
Abrahams had qualified for the final against all odds by equalling the Olympic record at 10.6 seconds. However, because he had started the race so late, he had actually covered the distance in a world record time of 10.4 seconds.
The way Abrahams turned the tables in such a dramatic style became lost in Chariots because he didn’t do it in the final. But it prompted a real-life exchange between Abrahams and Liddell when they met in the British dressing room just a few minutes later.
“You were badly away,” said Liddell. “Don’t talk of it,” replied Abrahams. “I saw five in front of me. But I won’t be left a second time.”
Big races, big nerves
It was a bold prediction from a man who often suffered panic attacks prior to big races. But Abrahams and coach Mussabini had hired a cabin just outside the Stade Colombes so that Abrahams could try to relax before the final.
Mussabini didn’t want nine months of hard work to go to waste, so his last words to Abrahams before they parted company were all about focus.
“Only think of two things – the report of the pistol, and the tape. When you hear the one, just run like hell until you reach the other.”
The sheer comic simplicity of this line ensured it was immortalised in Chariots. But something else sharpened Abrahams’ resolve just before the final, where he would have to face not just Paddock and Bowman again, but two other crack Americans: Jackson Scholz, aka ‘The New York Thunderbolt’, and Loren Murchison.
“I remember there was a kind of college yell from the Americans: ‘Rah, rah, rah. USA, America, A-M-E-R-I-C-A.’ But it didn’t worry me,” said Abrahams later. “One of the reasons that I felt so determined and so alone was that there was some anti-Semitism in those days. At Repton it was there – and at Cambridge.”
Abrahams used the chanting of the American fans to feed the fire in his belly. He was used to feeling rejected, unpopular, ignored. He knew how to turn such feelings to his advantage when it came to running. Now he did so again.
On the next page: Read on to find out more about the 100m race that changed Abraham's life.