On July 7, 1924, British runner Harold Abrahams won the gold medal in the final of the 100-meter sprint event, at the Paris Olympic Games. The story of Abrahams and his teammates served as the basis for the 1981 British film “Chariots of Fire,” which won the Academy Award for Best Picture. (In the film, Abrahams was played by actor Ben Cross.)
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Harold Maurice Abrahams was born in Bedford, England, on December 15, 1899, the son of Isaac and Ester Abrahams. Isaac, a banker, was an emigrant from Russian Poland; Ester was Welsh-born. Both of Harold’s brothers also became involved in sports, although in different ways: Sir Sidney Abrahams was an Olympic long jumper, and Sir Adolphe Abrahams was a physician who helped pioneer the field of sports medicine.
Harold was the only one of the three who did not receive a knighthood, although he was named a Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1957.
Abrahams studied at Cambridge University from 1920-1924, where he continued his childhood involvement in track and field events, both as a sprinter and as a long jumper. He competed on the British team in the 1920 Olympics in Antwerp, in the 100- and 200-meter races, as well as in the 4 x 100-meter relay, and in the long jump. He reached the finals only in the relay, with his team coming in fourth in the event.
In preparation for the 1924 Olympics, Abrahams hired a professional trainer, Sam Mussabini, who helped him focus on, and perfect his performance in, the 100-meter event. Although this didn’t violate any rules, it was frowned upon at Cambridge, because of the strong emphasis on the amateur aspect of the games. In the film, the Cambridge coaches' disapproval of Abrahams “playing the tradesman” is understood to be a reflection of their anti-Semitism. In real life, Abrahams was involved in a number of different extra-curricular and social activities at Cambridge, and although he is said to have suffered from some anti-Jewish discrimination, it was minor.
As the 1924 Olympics approached, Abrahams learned that he was scheduled to compete in both the 100- and 200-meter races, as well as in the long jump event. Frustrated by the news, he wrote a letter to the Daily Express, which he signed only as “A Famous International Athlete,” in which he declared with indignation: “The authorities surely do not imagine that he can perform at long jumping at two o'clock and run 200-meters at 2:30 on the same afternoon." A short time later, he was removed from the lineup for the long jump competition, although in fact the distance he had jumped in the event just a month before the Olympics remained an English record for the next 32 years.
In Paris, Abrahams came in sixth in the 200 meters, and his team won the silver medal in the 4 x 100 relay, but his great achievement was in the 100-meter race. In that, he unexpectedly beat the two American favorites, Jackson Scholz and Charles Paddock, the latter of whom had won the gold four years earlier.
Under normal circumstances, Abrahams’ teammate on the British team Eric Liddell, would have been the front-runner in the 100, but he had pulled out of the event during training, when he learned that one of the heats would be held on a Sunday. Liddell, known as Scotland’s fastest runner, was the son of Protestant missionaries, and running on the Christian Sabbath was considered dishonorable. Instead, he focused on the 400-meter run, an event that had never been his specialty, and ended up winning the gold medal. (It was before the final heat that a masseur for the U.S. Olympic team handed him a slip of paper on which he had written the encouraging words from 1 Samuel 2:30: “Those who honor me I will honor.”) He also won the bronze in the 200 meters.
Liddell himself became a missionary, serving for many years in China. He died of disease in 1943 while imprisoned in a Japanese internment camp there.
Abrahams retired from athletic competition in 1925, after breaking his leg while long- jumping, but for the rest of his life was active in British sports life. Professionally, he was both a lawyer and a sports journalist. The latter included becoming a commentator for BBC radio. He became president of the U.K.’s Jewish Athletic Association and was also chairman of the Amateur Athletic Association.
Abrahams and his (non-Jewish) wife, Sybil Evers, a singer with the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company whom he married in 1936, adopted two children in England in the 1940s. They also fostered two Jewish child refugees, one from Germany, the other from Austria.
Harold Abrahams died on January 14, 1978, at the age of 78. In 1948, another Olympic athlete, Philip Noel-Baker (who in 1959 won a Nobel Peace Prize for his work on nuclear disarmament), noted that Abrahams, with his “magnificent physique, his splendid racing temperament, his flair for the big occasion,” was one of those rare people who “understood athletics and had given more brainpower and more will power to the subject than any other runner of his day.”