'Chariots of Fire' lets Brits relive Olympic ideal


The London Olympics are drawing near and British headlines are full of complaints about the weather, commercialization, chaos on the roads and the subway. Is it any wonder that the story of two athletes competing at a simpler games is capturing the public imagination?

This summer brings the blazing return of "Chariots of Fire," the reality-based story of two British sprinters going for gold in the 1924 Paris Games.

Harold Abrahams was an English Jew who overcame the ingrained anti-Semitism of the British establishment, while Eric Liddell was a committed Scottish Christian forced to choose between his faith and his ambition when his race was on a Sunday.

The story of their struggle against the obstacles, and each other, was first told in a 1981 film that struck a chord around the world, becoming a surprise box office hit and winning four Academy Awards, including best picture.

On Friday it is being re-released in British movie theaters for a new generation. A stage adaptation has also opened in London's West End to rave reviews, suggesting that audiences still yearn to revisit a simpler time.

Ben Cross, who played Abrahams, thinks the movie's appeal lies in its depiction of "the pureness, the purity, the innocence" of Olympic competition.

"We have security worries today, and it's turned into somewhat of a business enterprise," he said. "(But) at its core there is this sort of purity of endeavor. The film shows there can be a kind of dignity in losing."

Not too much losing, though. Without spoiling the ending, it's fair to say the movie, and Mike Bartlett's stage adaptation, are stirring sagas.

"It's a simple story about simple ideals, simple morals. Stand up for who you are. Stand up for your rights," the film's director, Hugh Hudson, said at a very British gala premiere in London's Leicester Square — complete with red carpet, Union flags, torrential downpours.

The film had striving athletes, dreaming spires, class conflict, young men in shorts — and, in a stroke of genius, a driving synth score by Vangelis that is still played at countless sports competitions.

Audiences around the world loved it. Martin Polley, an Olympic historian at the University of Southampton in southern England, is not surprised they still do.

"All history films tell us a lot about now as well as about then," he said. Now as much as in 1981— a year after a Cold War-marred Moscow Games were boycotted by the U.S. and other Western nations — "looking back to "a time when the Olympics were apolitical and noncommercial is very attractive."

Of course, that idealized past is partly an illusion. The 1924 Paris Olympics were not as pure as many imagine. Then, as now, international politics interfered with the competition. Germany, banned from the games after its defeat in World War I, did not compete.

And good sportsmanship was not always uppermost. Abrahams' biographer, Mark Ryan, points out in a program note for the play that the rugby competition ended in a riot when the U.S. beat France, with the home crowd attacking American players and fans. A French boxer was disqualified for biting.

Polley says commercialism was part of the games long before McDonald's and Visa were around to stamp their brands on the event.

"The 1900, 1904 and 1908 Olympics were all sideshows to trade fairs," Polley said. "Coca Cola has been involved in the Olympics since 1920."

The film acknowledges the ambiguity, relishing old-fashioned ideals of Britishness and sportsmanship while conceding that winning may take more than just talent.

It celebrates Liddell, who was fast despite his ungainly running style — head back, arms flailing.

When the two men first raced, Liddell was faster, But Abrahams supplemented his natural talent with a determined, professional approach to training. He hired a coach, Sam Mussabini, and was scorned for it by a British sports establishment infused with the notion of the gentleman amateur.

That spirit is embodied in the film by Nigel Havers' aristocratic Lord Andrew Lindsay, vaulting over hurdles on which his butler has balanced champagne glasses. The play manages to recreate the scene, in a bravura bit of staging.

The play, which stages the running sequences with kinetic flair, is a patriotic nostalgia-fest, a panorama of blazers and boaters and Gilbert and Sullivan. In the closing moments, actors playing the 1924 athletes stand by others in the 2012 uniforms of Team GB (Great Britain) — with director Edward Hall making an explicit link between then and now.

Polley says despite big business, doping scandals and the participation of professional athletes, the Olympic ideal extolled in "Chariots of Fire" survives — battered but resilient.

"It's got a status of being something honorable," he said. "There is a kind of nobility, in the sense that there is no cash prize, and a lot of people who have no chance of a medal will still take part and will see it as a great honor."


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