Forgotten field of dreams: Visit the scene of Britain's triumph at the 1924 Olympics in Paris
Simon Calder’s career in travel started at Gatwick Airport, where he cleaned aircraft for Laker Airways and later worked as a security officer. He became The Independent’s Travel Correspondent in 1994, and is known as “the Man Who Pays His Way” because he does not accept free travel facilities. He writes across the Independent titles, as well as for the Evening Standard.
Friday 23 March 2012
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
* 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.
* 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.
* To view Simon Calder's film on the 1924 Olympics, visit independent.co.uk/ games24
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