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

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
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

    Recruitment Genius: Car Sales Executive - Franchised Main Dealer

    £30000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a great opportunity for...

    Recruitment Genius: Group Sales Manager - Field Based

    £21000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Located on the stunning Sandban...

    Guru Careers: Email Marketing Specialist

    £26 - 35k (DOE): Guru Careers: An Email Marketing Specialist is needed to join...

    Recruitment Genius: Tour Drivers - UK & European

    Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity to join a is a...

    Day In a Page

    As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

    As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

    Mussolini tried to warn his ally of the danger of bringing the country to its knees. So should we, says Patrick Cockburn
    Britain's widening poverty gap should be causing outrage at the start of the election campaign

    The short stroll that should be our walk of shame

    Courting the global elite has failed to benefit Britain, as the vast disparity in wealth on display in the capital shows
    Homeless Veterans appeal: The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty
    Prince Charles the saviour of the nation? A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king

    Prince Charles the saviour of the nation?

    A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king
    How books can defeat Isis: Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad

    How books can defeat Isis

    Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
    Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

    Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

    She may be in charge of minimising our risks of injury, but the chair of the Health and Safety Executive still wants children to be able to hurt themselves
    The open loathing between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu just got worse

    The open loathing between Obama and Netanyahu just got worse

    The Israeli PM's relationship with the Obama has always been chilly, but going over the President's head on Iran will do him no favours, says Rupert Cornwell
    French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

    French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

    Fury at British best restaurants survey sees French magazine produce a rival list
    Star choreographer Matthew Bourne gives young carers a chance to perform at Sadler's Wells

    Young carers to make dance debut

    What happened when superstar choreographer Matthew Bourne encouraged 27 teenage carers to think about themselves for once?
    Design Council's 70th anniversary: Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch

    Design Council's 70th anniversary

    Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch
    Dame Harriet Walter: The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment

    Dame Harriet Walter interview

    The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment
    Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

    Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

    Critics of Tom Stoppard's new play seem to agree that cerebral can never trump character, says DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's winter salads will make you feel energised through February

    Bill Granger's winter salads

    Salads aren't just a bit on the side, says our chef - their crunch, colour and natural goodness are perfect for a midwinter pick-me-up
    England vs Wales: Cool head George Ford ready to put out dragon fire

    George Ford: Cool head ready to put out dragon fire

    No 10’s calmness under pressure will be key for England in Cardiff
    Michael Calvin: Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links