Running With Fire, by Mark Ryan

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The Independent Culture

It is surprising that this is the first biography of Harold Abrahams, given that he was Britain's first Olympic 100m champion and exercised a lifelong influence on athletics, but then his story is full of surprises.

Abrahams is remembered now mainly through the 1981 film Chariots of Fire which, though largely accurate in its portrayal of his 1924 Olympic exploits, altered a number of other aspects of his life, in line with Mark Twain's dictum: "It's no wonder that truth is stranger than fiction. Fiction has to make sense."

His father was an illiterate and abusive Lithuanian Jew whose children turned out to be high achievers – two of Harold's brothers were knighted, and from an early age he showed startling athletic promise. But he never forgot the anti-Semitism he encountered at boarding school and Cambridge University – Colin Welland, the writer of Chariots of Fire, is quoted as saying: "Harold had a chip on his shoulder the size of a synagogue".

His athletics career ended after he broke a leg long-jumping in 1925, after which he became a journalist and administrator, a powerful voice internationally and finally president of the Amateur Athletic Federation.

Given the discrimination he had suffered, and the fact he had employed a professional coach, it is curious he became more and more hidebound as the years passed. He cracked down on any perceived transgressions of the amateur code, and incensed the Wilson government by vigorously opposing sporting sanctions against South Africa. This probably cost him his knighthood – the fact that his adopted daughter Sue married Pat Pottle, the peace campaigner who helped the Soviet spy George Blake to escape, can't have helped.

Mark Ryan doesn't gloss over the imperfections, but his sympathetic account celebrates the runner rather than the reactionary.

Published in hardback by JR Books, £20