Running With Fire, by Mark Ryan
Sunday 05 June 2011
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
TV review Nick Hewer, the man whose eyebrows speak a thousand words, is set to leave The Apprentice
Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites
TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Nigel Farage: Me vs Russell Brand on Question Time – he's got the chest hair but where are his ideas?
- 2 Harry Potter fans can apply to the Hogwarts-inspired College of Wizardry
- 3 Jessica Chambers: 19-year-old woman 'doused with lighter fluid and burned alive' in the US
- 4 Russell Brand calls Nigel Farage 'poundshop Enoch Powell' in BBC Question Time debate
- 5 Orange Wednesdays are no more
Peter Lik: The self-proclaimed 'fine-art photographer' whose work sells for millions
The best underrated Christmas movies from Love, Actually to While You Were Sleeping
Grace Dent on TV: The Lost Honour of Christopher Jefferies was a beautifully shot, immensely considered drama
The Lost Honour of Christopher Jefferies, review: Jason Watkins is brilliant, but real victim Joanna Yeates is reduced to a footnote
Marilyn Manson denies involvement in shocking Lana Del Rey rape video
Disgruntled RBS worker writes hilarious open letter to Russell Brand after anti-capitalist publicity stunt leaves him hungry
Nigel Farage's approval rating hits 'record low' as popularity suffers in wake of Ukip sex scandal
Nigel Farage defends Kerry Smith 'ch***y' comment: 'If you are going for a Chinese, what do you say you’re going for?'
Pakistan school attack live: Taliban kill at least 132 children in 'horrifying' massacre
Sony hack: Angelina Jolie branded 'seriously out of her mind' in further embarrassing leaked email saga
Panic Saturday: 13 million Britons spend £1.2bn – while 13 million others across the country live in poverty unable to afford food