‘Chariots Return’ book is the perfect accompaniment to Paris Olympics

The 1981 film ‘Chariots of Fire’ brought the remarkable true story of two British athletes competing at the 1924 Olympics to global renown. Now, Mark Ryan’s new book ‘Chariots Return’ tells the whole tale, from the exploits of Eric Liddell and Harold Abrahams in Paris, their subsequent struggles, and David Puttnam’s Oscar-winning production…

By Philip Barker

The cover image of ‘Chariots Return’ by Mark Ryan

It is now less than two months to go until the Olympics open in Paris, so you can expect many reminders of the last time the Games were in the “City of Light” 100 years ago.

The mere mention of Paris 1924 might well bring memories of ‘Chariots of Fire’ and of course that music.

It is where Mark Ryan begins his story by pointing out how that immortal theme by Vangelis was only included in the picture at the eleventh hour.

For those who like to know these things, there was another track originally intended for the famous sequence on the beach so brilliantly parodied by Rowan Atkinson in 2012.

It was another Vangelis composition entitled ‘L’Enfant’, eventually included in ‘The Year of Living Dangerously’ starring Mel Gibson and Sigourney Weaver.

‘Chariots of Fire’ telescopes the story of 100m gold medallist Harold Abrahams and Eric Liddell, winner of the 400m, into two hours of screen time.

Producer David Puttnam admitted that it altered a few things for “dramatic effect” but it proved an undeniable success and is set for a cinematic re-release this summer.

A digitally remastered version of ‘Chariots of Fire’ had a UK re-release for the London 2012 Olympics

The film opens with a London memorial service for Abrahams. In the words of the film, it is about remembering “those few young men, with hope in our hearts, and wings on our heels”.

42 years ago, instead of gold medals, the film collected four golden statuettes at the Oscars.

In a book of over 400 pages, there is rather more room to manoeuvre and Ryan uses the space to relate the life stories of both men.

The cover is illustrated with an imaginative composite of Puttnam filming the Olympic 100m between Abrahams and Liddell, a race which of course never did take place because of Liddell’s refusal to compete on a Sunday.

The background to this and other stories is told in a substantial volume in which the depth of research undertaken is clear across every page.

There are also many well-chosen photos, some familiar, some less well-known which add to the enjoyment as a whole.

Whereas the film essentially ends in 1924, this book reveals what happened next to both men.

Liddell returned to China, the land of his birth, to continue his work as a Christian missionary.

He remained there even after the Japanese had invaded but became seriously ill and died in an internment camp in 1945.

Abrahams was forced to retire from competitive athletics after an injury during a long jump competition at Stamford Bridge.

He later became an athletics administrator and also a journalist and commentator on the sport.

Abrahams had been born into a Jewish family, yet he attended the 1936 Olympics in Berlin even though under considerable pressure to stay away from Berlin as the true nature of the Nazi regime and its treatment of its Jewish population became clear.

Abrahams was determined to be present but Ryan’s book uncovers a shameful and almost unbelievable memo from BBC Programme Controller Cecil Graves discussing the problem.

“The point about this is of course, that Abrahams is a Jew,” began Graves.

“If we are prepared to go out into the open and label him as the BBC Commentator, he is quite ready to go.

“We all regard the German action against the Jews as quite irrational and intolerable but should we take the line that, however irrational we regard another country’s attitude to be, it would be discourteous to send a Jewish commentator to a country where Jews are taboo?”

Other BBC officials went along with this. Tommy Woodroofe, a man who had broadcast the Spithead review when clearly ‘tired and emotional’, was put in charge of the BBC team in Berlin with responsibility for finding other commentators.

He did at least ensure that Abrahams was used. The Abrahams commentary on the 1500m final in Berlin, won by his friend the New Zealander Jack Lovelock, became famous.

When the war came to an end, Abrahams made another important broadcast in support of London as prospective hosts for the 1948 Games.

He was later recruited to the Press Department for the Games.

He subsequently attended every Summer Olympics before his death in 1978, shortly after he had been approached to help with the making of ‘Chariots of Fire’.

The book carefully interweaves the story of the film with thoughts on the future of the Games.

Lord Coe, now President of World Athletics, has insisted that the film reflects “timeless values not past their sell-by date”.

Ryan himself concludes with the thought that “as the countdown to Paris 2024 began, Chariots of Fire had lost none of its power to inspire.”

This book will do the same.

‘Chariots Return: Saving the Soul of the Games’ by Mark Ryan is out now, published by Keep It Real Publishing.

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