— Opening Scene from “Chariots of Fire”
LONDON — Three weeks before the Olympic Games began, the Best Picture of 1981 was re-released here. Crowds of Londoners filled theaters as the lads in white churned the beach in St. Andrews again, a Vangelis synthesizer pulsing through their legs.
With Usain Bolt and Michael Phelps now in town, less than a day away from the Opening Ceremonies, really, who pays to see a three-decade-old movie set in 1924 Paris?
Or the companion “Chariots of Fire” stage play now showing at the Gielgud Theater in London, where Eric Liddell, the Scottish Christian, and Harold Abrahams, the English Jew, run under the same Union Jack once more?
“I’m not exactly sure all the reasons people are still interested in my father and men like him,” said Patricia Liddell Russell, 77, from her home in Ontario, Canada. The eldest daughter of Liddell added, “But I’d like to think it’s because they see principles in him they wish they had in themselves.”
Sue Pottle, the daughter of Abrahams, in a phone interview from North Wales, said, “Their world is gone but something about what they represented remains, doesn’t it now?”
All of Britain is teeming for the Opening Ceremonies Friday night, a grand gala said to feature David Beckham, Harry Potter, Mary Poppins, James Bond, Sir Paul McCartney and every other real or imagined prominent soul in British pop culture. Beneath the excited wait, though, there is this get-on-with-it-already attitude among the Brits.
Londoners don’t need Jacques Rogge and his IOC VIPs puffing their chests out and clogging traffic to give them their sense of history; that’s the Queen’s job. They aren’t gullible, either, when it comes to these Games’ most inspiring human-interest stories — because long ago they had the original.
Two weeks ago, Sir Roger Bannister, cane in hand at 83, returned to the track where he broke the four-minute barrier for the mile in 1954, the year he became Sports Illustrated’s inaugural “Sportsman of the Year.”
“No longer conscious of my movement, I discovered a new unity with nature,” Bannister said of his historic run. “I had found a new source of power and beauty, a source I never dreamt existed.”
Here, in their great champions, human majesty lives on.
Did we mention who the timekeeper was for Bannister that day? Abrahams. He later gave Bannister his Omega stopwatch that timed his 3:59.4. (“Of course,” Sue Pottle says, chuckling, “I believe that’s after my father had bought another.”)
On the baton passing went in the U.K. Sebastian Coe, among the world’s greatest middle-distance runners in the 1970s and 1980s along with rivals Steve Ovett and Steve Cram, remembered Abrahams “actually handing me an award at an athletics event one year. It’s something I often look back to because he was an extraordinary figure in our sport.”
Now the head of the London Olympic Organizing Committee, he’s simply known as “Seb Coe.”
“I think ‘Chariots of Fire’ was one of those films that really did broaden people’s understanding of our own Olympic history,” he said when we spoke a few months ago. “It showed who we were and why.”
They don’t merely embrace sporting history in London; they hold it up as the seminal example of what competition was, what it could be again if the money and the corruption would just go away.
A missionary in China like his parents, Liddell famously declined to run in the 100 meters in Paris on a Sunday, his Sabbath. He died of a brain tumor, at just 43, in a prisoner of war camp in 1945.
“When people heard he wouldn’t run on a Sunday, they immediately began to think of my father as rigid, stiff and moralistic,” Russell said. “He was not that at all. He simply wasn’t about to change that rule for himself, is all.”
In an interview with London’s Guardian newspaper this week, Abdul Karim Aziz, Afghanistan’s top track official, acknowledged that “most of the runners [on his team] don’t even have standard [running] shoes, just ones they buy from the bazaar.”
“I was thinking as I read that story that we have a host nation with everything,” said Pottle, whose father died in 1978, three years before “Chariots of Fire” was released. “Then other nations, our more deprived colleagues, can’t afford training shoes? We have a responsibility to provide for them, don’t we?”
The more the Games evolve, the more the contradictions grow. The IOC pines for the purity of sport, but there are so many tripwires now in an Olympics that includes a Kabul miler without proper training and equipment as well as LeBron James and the Team USA multimillionaire basketball players.
In a speech honoring Liddell at Edinburgh University in May, Lord David Puttnam, the producer of “Chariots of Fire,” said, “I’ve long believed there should be a fourth [place] in every victory ceremony reserved for athletes in each discipline who have exceeded their previous personal bests by the greatest margin.
“I believe they should have their own medal. And the really intelligent way to begin to unhook ourselves from our present, rather juvenile conception of success would be for an official medal table to be created that illustrates which country is delivering the best performance, in terms of the percentage of their competitors who are in turn achieving their individual personal bests. Because that’s the country that’s truly succeeding.”
He added, that “better should not be confused with bigger or grander.”
Bannister became a renowned neurologist and a Master at Oxford University. Though he never won an Olympic medal, he is regarded as a national treasure, still very much the persevering young man who spent 10 years devoted to eclipsing the four-minute barrier.
“Every morning in Africa, a gazelle wakes up,” he once said. “It knows it must outrun the fastest lion or it will be killed. Every morning in Africa, a lion wakes up. It knows it must run faster than the slowest gazelle, or it will starve. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a lion or a gazelle — when the sun comes up, you’d better be running.”
Pottle can see how stodgy it all sounds — reminiscing over men long dead and gone, trotting 83-year-olds out for torch-lighting ceremonies, dwelling on a different time with different ideals.
“Oh, I suppose it’s all mollycoddle — a time long gone that no one can identify with today,” she said. “My father’s idol was Jesse Owens. He was the most fantastic athlete he’d ever seen. And Jesse once said he had hoped he could win so he could make a few pennies like Johnny Weissmuller. In that way, it’s good men can earn a living with their talent now.”
Neither daughter of the Paris gold medalists said they would attend the London Games. For one, they haven’t been invited as guests. And besides, the daughter of 100-meter Olympic champion Harold Abrahams said, “I’m not paying hundreds of pounds to see a race that lasts nine seconds.”
For Mike Wise’s previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/wise.