Forgotten field of dreams: Visit the scene of Britain's triumph at the 1924 Olympics in Paris

 

You probably know the place, at least on screen. If you have seen either Chariots of Fire or Escape to Victory, you will have seen the centrepiece of those sporting thrillers: a stadium in the north-western reaches of Paris. Or, rather, you will not have seen it. Because the Stade du Matin is represented in the former feature by Bebington Oval in the Wirral, and in the latter by a stadium in the Hungarian capital, Budapest. Yet by some miracle of neglect, the venue for the most celebrated 400m race in Olympic history – not to mention the 1938 World Cup Final – is still there, buried in the banlieue, and all yours to race around.

Getting there is almost none of the fun. All the joyful quarters of Paris are compressed within the Boulevard Périphérique. Colombes, home to the stadium, is part of the jigsaw of grim suburbs characterised by ugly tower blocks and dreadful parking. The main street comprises a mix of Oriental restaurants, artless architecture and nightclubs, with only a modern église, in the style of a shard, puncturing the sullen suburb.

Bus 166 meanders to a termination close to the A86 (Paris's M25), whose perpetually lapping traffic generates a constant growl. Yet this is France's heart of sporting glory, as street names such as Rue Olympie and Boulevard Pierre de Coubertin (after the father of the modern Games) show.

The Café du Stade can host 42 diners. The luckiest quartet is that seated next to the display of antique postcards. In faded sepia, they record the stories of the Chariots of Fire Olympics in 1924. This is the place to take a performance-enhancing café au lait while you survey images from an age of athletic innocence.

Eighty-eight years ago, Paris was a far smaller capital. The "Paris" Olympics took place a long way beyond the portes of the city – Colombes is 13km from Notre-Dame. In 1924, it was evidently leafy, the kind of area to which citizens would escape for a day in something resembling the country.

During the Games, Parisians had plenty of chances to combine a stroll with a sprint. In those relaxed inter-war years, the VIII Olympiad lasted from early May to late July, a spread of 84 days – five times as long as the 2012 Games in London.

The athletes may have imagined that, given such a spread, they might get Sundays off. Not so, which was a problem for Britain's leading sprinter, Eric Liddell. As Chariots of Fire famously relates, Liddell was a committed Christian and refused to run in the 100m heats which were scheduled for the Sabbath. Harold Abrahams, an English Jew who had fought anti-Semitism, won the gold. Liddell entered the 400m instead, but since this was an event in which he had no track record, his chances looked slim.

Time to look at the field of dreams. The stadium originally took its name from the sponsor, the newspaper Le Matin, but is now named after a Rugby player, Yves du Manoir, and the current tenants are the rugby club Racing Métro 92 – which helps explain the preponderance of rugby shirts on the walls of the Café du Stade.

Unless the team are playing at home, you can wander in unchallenged through the gate at the north-west corner. Inside, the stadium is initially disappointing; it resembles one of the more drab Division 2 grounds in the English Football League. But the main stand is a place where spectators can look back on the past. Judging from the pictures in the café, it has changed only superficially.

Sit in the stand among the ads for Toyota and Orange, on a grubby blue plastic seat. Close your eyes and the rumble of the A86 might be replaced by the roar of the crowd. This is the track where men became heroes. See if you can avoid humming the theme to Chariots of Fire or "Jerusalem", the hymn with which the film begins. And look, you can even run your own circuit. Imagine being able to wander freely into Wembley for a bit of a kick-around, or turn up at the Centre Court at Wimbledon for a knockabout: the Stade Yves du Manoir is like that.

For my 400m, I was surrounded not by "dark satanic mills", but by six or seven hulking apartment blocks and a floodlight in each corner. I covered the ground in a reasonable time – for an 800m, at least. Fortunately, Eric Liddell did rather better. Those feet, in ancient time, won. Liddell covered the distance in 47.6 seconds – a world and Olympic record. He picked up one of Britain's nine golds (the French somehow connived to win 13), and also took the bronze in the 200m.

Liddell's achievement will be remembered in London on 4 August this year, when the 100m and 400m heats in the London Olympics take place. He did not survive the war, and died in a Japanese internment camp in China in 1945, aged just 43.

This stadium also saw the last pre-war World Cup final, in which Italy beat Hungary 4-2. (None of the home nations took part, which is no doubt why Scotland did not make it to the final on that occasion.) But it is the 1924 Olympics that will start sporting pulses racing.

The building that served as administrative HQ for the Games is a stout, brick structure, currently boarded up. But the old Olympic symbol, three intersecting crescents (or are they croissants?) is still embedded in the chimney. One day, perhaps, the authorities will realise what sporting glory resides here and open it as a museum. Until then, the field of dreams is all yours.

Travel essentials: Paris

Getting there

* Take the Eurostar (08432 186186; eurostar.com) from London St Pancras, Ebbsfleet or Ashford, Kent, to Paris Gare du Nord. Buy a carnet of Metro tickets, which are valid on the RER and buses within Paris. Take RER line E one stop to St-Lazare. From the mainline station there are two or three trains an hour to Colombes station, taking around 15 minutes. Alternatively, transfer to Metro line 13 to Asnières-Gennevilliers-Les Courtilles. (Make sure you get the right branch.) From either station, bus 166, marked Colombes-Audra, terminates at the stadium.

Eating there

* The Café du Stade is at 67 Rue Paul Bert (00 33 1 42 42 06 62). Or, if you want a pun with your picnic, shop at Lidl at 85 Rue des Mourinoux in Asnières.

Seeing there

* To view Simon Calder's film on the 1924 Olympics, visit independent.co.uk/ games24

News
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.
peopleThe idea has been greeted enthusiastically by the party's MPs
News
Michael Buerk in the I'm A Celebrity jungle 2014
people
Voices
File: David Cameron offers a toast during a State Dinner in his honour March 14, 2012
voicesAnd nobody from Ukip said babies born to migrants should be classed as migrants, says Nigel Farage
Arts and Entertainment
Avatar grossed $2.8bn at the box office after its release in 2009
filmJames Cameron is excited
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Stik on the crane as he completed the mural
art
News
Happy in his hat: Pharrell Williams
people
Arts and Entertainment
Stella Gibson is getting closer to catching her killer
tvReview: It's gripping edge-of-the-seat drama, so a curveball can be forgiven at such a late stage
News
Brazilian football legend Pele pictured in 2011
peopleFans had feared the worst when it was announced the Brazil legand was in a 'special care' unit
News
i100(More than you think)
Sport
Brendan Rodgers seems more stressed than ever before as Liverpool manager
FOOTBALLI like Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
News
The Magna Carta
archaeologyContemporary account of historic signing discovered
News
Phyllis Dorothy James on stage during a reading of her book 'Death Comes to Pemberley' last year
peopleJohn Walsh pays tribute to PD James, who died today
Sport
Benjamin Stambouli celebrates his goal for Tottenham last night
FOOTBALL
Life and Style
Dishing it out: the head chef in ‘Ratatouille’
food + drinkShould UK restaurants follow suit?
News
peopleExclusive: Maryum and Hana Ali share their stories of the family man behind the boxing gloves
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    h2 Recruit Ltd: Sales Manager - Holiday Homes - £100,000 OTE

    £40000 - £60000 per annum + £100,000 OTE: h2 Recruit Ltd: Birmingham, Derby, L...

    Investigo: Finance Manager - Global Leisure Business

    £55000 - £65000 per annum: Investigo: My client, a global leader in their fiel...

    Investigo: Senior Finance Analyst - Global Leisure Business

    £45000 - £52000 per annum + bonus+bens : Investigo: My client, a global leader...

    Investigo: Financial reporting Accountant

    £40000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits : Investigo: One of the fastest growing g...

    Day In a Page

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

    Christmas Appeal

    Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
    Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

    Is it always right to try to prolong life?

    Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
    Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

    What does it take for women to get to the top?

    Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
    Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

    Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

    Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
    French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

    French chefs campaign against bullying

    A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
    Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

    Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

    Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
    Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

    Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

    Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
    Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

    Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

    Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
    Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

    Paul Scholes column

    I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
    Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

    Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

    So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
    Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

    Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

    The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
    Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

    Sarkozy returns

    The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
    Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

    Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

    Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
    Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

    Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

    Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game