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Chariots of Fire

The South of England. Some time in 1921.


A group of young, talented, ambitious British track athletes, hopeful of one day qualifying for the Olympics, run along an otherwise deserted beach.



As they do, a masterful soundtrack provides the backdrop to one of the most memorable opening scenes in motion picture history. The music heralds an Academy Award winning film, and score by the same name, titled Chariots of Fire.


November 1918. World War I finally ends. Yet, the aftermath of this cruel and destructive global conflict, along with the penal terms of the subsequent Paris Peace Conference, severely impacts any meaningful return to international sport.


Indeed, while the city of Antwerp hosts the 1920 Olympic Games, it is a marquee event held too soon. Several major European nations, deemed responsible for starting the “war to end all wars”, are banned from competing. In addition, Soviet Russia, only just emerging from the throes of its civil strife, opts not to take part.


Perhaps not surprisingly, interest in the Games wanes. Attendance flags. The exclusion of female competitors and events, the rise of rival working class sporting movements, and the compelling attraction of professional sports such as baseball, boxing and soccer, are further prohibiting factors.


Fortunately, in 1924, a mere four years later, Paris comes to the rescue. The city oozes positivity and optimism. The French government enthusiastically supports the Games. Provides plenty of financial backing, builds a new stadium. Fans flock to watch the various competitions. In showcasing such rituals such as the parade of nations, the oath, the presentation of medals, the Olympics regain momentum and prestige as the globe’s premier sporting event.


Heroes emerge. Though women compete in only a handful of events, the American swimmer Sybil Bauer, having already smashed a men’s world backstroke record, cruises to a gold medal. Joining her is tennis sensation Helen Wills. She captures both the singles and mixed doubles titles, soon becoming one of the first female athletes to achieve international celebrity status.


On the men’s side, similar global superstars feature. The transcendent Paavo Nurmi, the “Flying Finn”, runs six grueling distance races in seven days. Claims a staggering five gold medals. American Johnny Weissmuller dominates in the pool, on the way to three gold medals of his own before a stint as Tarzan in Hollywood. Likewise, the Uruguayan soccer team, its players lauded in the world press as “artists”, dazzles with its outrageous skill and intricate passing.


Additionally, there are the trials and tribulations of several British runners. Of three men in particular who refuse to compromise their values, no matter the cost.


Of Eric Liddell, who, despite massive pressure from a peeved Prince of Wales and his national Olympic committee, refuses to take part in the 100-meter dash. Though dismayed by the scheduling conflict, his strict Christian convictions prevent him from running on a Sunday, the Lord’s Day.


Of Harold Abrahams, a Jew and so often the victim of prejudice. Soundly defeated in the 200-meter race, the 100 meters becomes his last chance for glory. His grueling training bears fruit as he wins gold.


Of Lord Arthur Lindsay, who, having secured a silver medal in the 400-meter hurdles race, sportingly surrenders his place in the 400 meters in order that Liddell has the chance to at least compete as an Olympian. Liddell, his strong beliefs and story now making headlines around the world, gratefully accepts. In a stunning upset, he then defeats a strong contingent of American runners.


The three return home, triumphant. Abrahams goes on to become the elder statesman of British athletics. Liddell chooses missionary work in China, his death in 1945 deeply mourned by millions.


The exploits of similarly superbly talented performers become the future norm. Certainly, with Paris 1924 a critical restart, the Games aim to secure an ongoing place as the most appealing and entertaining sports competition in the world, the Olympic rings a widely recognized symbol of unity and excellence.



Yet, though regular record-breaking triumphs and uplifting performances leave lasting and deep impressions, the Games prove not to be immune from international conflict and crisis. Boycotts, protests, postponements, even terror and murder, become moments that shake not only the Olympics but the entire watching world.


Take Berlin in 1936. Here, American Jesse Owens, a black athlete, dominates the competition and wins multiple gold medals. In so doing, he shatters the myth of Aryan supremacy. Then, he befriends one of his main competitors, a German named “Luz” Long. The pair’s lap of honour following the long jump event symbolizes a triumph of sportsmanship over Adolf Hitler’s Nazi ideology.


London 1948. In the immediate wake of World War II, the Games mark a significant milestone in terms of including wheelchair athletes. As part of their rehabilitation, wounded veterans compete in events that become the forerunner to the modern Paralympics.


The list goes on. Rome 1960, the first Olympics to be televised world wide, the first to include brand endorsements. The first tainted by doping scandals.


Then comes Mexico City 1968. Black athletes representing the United States consider boycotting the Games. Instead, sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos protest by raising black gloved fists, as their national anthem plays following the 200-meter medal presentation. This “Black Power” salute brings the American battle for civil rights to the international stage.


Tragically, terror infamously mars the 1972 Munich athletes when Palestinian gunmen take hostage, then kill, eleven Israeli hostages. Amidst great controversy, the Games go on, but with any message of international peace irreparably damaged.



The discord continues over the next decade and beyond. Human rights again dominate the headlines as African nations boycott Montreal 1976. At issue is New Zealand’s decision to play rugby in South Africa, then under apartheid. Then, in another politically motivated withdrawal, with the Cold War at its iciest, the USA and its allies pull out of the Moscow Games in 1980. Not to be outdone, the Soviet Union, along with thirteen other countries in the Eastern bloc, returns the favour in Los Angeles 1984.


Happily, ensuing Olympics offer plenty of feelgood factors. 1992 in Barcelona sees professional athletes officially eligible to participate for the first time. The USA Dream Team, led by legendary Michael Jordan and a selection of other basketball superstars, gains wild popularity in romping to the gold medal.



Next, in Atlanta 1996, though clearly struggling with Parkinson’s disease, former heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali lights the Olympic flame during a highly emotional opening ceremony.


Four years later, North and South Korean teams, in a much ballyhooed but short-lived alliance, march and compete as a united nation at Sydney 2000.


More recently, American swimmer Michael Phelps, over the course of four competitions, finishes an improbably successful career as the most decorated Olympian of all time. Absolutely dominant in the pool, first in Athens 2004, then Beijing 2008, London 2012 and Rio de Janeiro 2016, he achieves a staggering total of 28 medals, 23 of them gold.


Finally, early in 2020, due to the global Covid pandemic, Japan postpones the Tokyo Olympics. However, the decision not to cancel outright proves wise, as a successful event goes ahead as planned the following summer.


I reflect on the past century of Olympic competition. At a myriad of athletes in so many sports, some, men and women, bordering on the super human. The remainder, at their best, ridiculously accomplished. I consider equally the numerous difficulties and obstacles. Of war and politics, wild financial overruns, lack of trust and honesty, climate change, and more.


Today, the Olympic movement perhaps faces challenges greater than in 1924. Conflict in Europe and the Middle East could easily explode into another World War. Environmental chaos, famine, and extreme poverty show little sign of abating.



Still, I resist any downward slide into a rabbit hole. Rather, as I close my eyes and hear the music, I return to runners on a beach a century ago. I feel nostalgia, spirit, effort, and endeavour. Sense hope in their hearts, wings on their heels. See human faces etched with pain, but also joy.

 

In 87 days, the Olympics return to Paris. And so, may these 2024 Games, as they did 100 years ago in the same magical city, provoke and inspire. Deliver their own bows of burning gold, their own chariots of fire.

2 Comments


Elsie F
Elsie F
May 03

An absolutely brilliant overview of the trials and tribulations of humanity as seen through the history of the Olympic Games.

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garyrobjohnston
May 01

Hydes. One of your best !

HH Jono

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