Chariots of Fire, The Olympics and National Identity.

From the symbolic linking of the mutli-coloured rings to the underlying values of the Modern Olympic Movement the upcoming 2012 Olympics have become synonymous with attitudes of equality and integration. This year new initiatives have been taken up in schools across the world that demonstrate to children that in this world wide diverse culture there is value to be found in mutual respect.


This ideology has long been associated with the Olympic Games however, as it has long been a competition that has brought all peoples of all nations and abilities together under the single banner of sporting achievement. Even the 1936 Olympics that were held in Berlin, Germany whilst Hitler and the Nazis were in power have become infamous for the way the general public were appalled by Hitler’s dismissal of African American multi gold medallist Jesse Owens.


These factors are things that could not be of more importance in this day and age and it is no wonder therefore why 20th Century Fox have decided to re-release the Oscar winning British Olympics movie Chariots of Fire to coincide with the games that are taking place in London 2012.


Although Chariots of Fire is on the surface a movie about the 1924 Olympics it is in fact far more than that, it is a movie about personal and national identity and a movie which traverses the ways in which national pride and personal identity can sometimes collide, something many will have become more familiar with in recent years. Chariots of Fire’s narrative is based on the true story of Gold winning medallists Eric Liddell and Harold Abrahams, British Olympians running the 1924 Paris Olympics. Liddell, a devout Scottish Christian is on a brief reprove from serving in a Christian mission in China and views his ability and commitment to running as a personal form of religious worship. After months of training however Liddell arrives in Paris only to discover the race in which he has been intending to race is due to fall on a Sunday; the Sabbath, a day which is to be devoted solely to rest and the worship of God. The strength of Liddell’s beliefs are such that for him there is no question as to whether he will take part in the race or not, his decision however causes a great deal of problems for him and he is eventually brought before future King and the Prince of Wales himself, Edward VIII, in an attempt to dissuade him from dropping out.


Abrahams on the other hand finds his abilities constantly doubted throughout his training, no matter how many times he demonstrates his speed and agility, he finds himself viewed first as Jew and as a sportsman second. Abraham’s struggle to demonstrate to society that he is capable, regardless of his religious beliefs and upbringing, are ultimately unimportant when it comes to taking part in the Games themselves; suddenly he and his fellow runners are unified under the same banner as Olympians. When he runs Abrahams finally finds himself regarded for his speed and ability, not his Jewish heritage, thus demonstrating the strength of the unifying ideologies that the Olympic Games stand for.


Throughout the movie both Liddell and Abrahams face prejudices and stereotypes, most notably during Abraham’s time at Cambridge University when a number of offensive racial slurs are made toward Abrahams not only by his peers but even by his lecturers and Head of House. These statements and implications demonstrate the strength and deeply inset nature of the social stereotypes levelled at both Abrahams and Liddell. Not only were these notions commonplace in pre-war Britain but their use by superior academics demonstrated that they were also totally acceptable.


The most notable instances of anti-Semitism come from these Cambridge academics who berate Abrahams for employing a professional trainer to assist him in improving his running technique; it takes sometime for Abrahams to realize however that these men are in fact far more disapproving of his attempt to exist outside the parameters of the traditional social stereotype they believe he should fall into. Comments about his father’s job and his families class status show that the college masters both feel that as a Jew Abrahams should not be attempting to compete as a professional athlete, they believe it is utterly unacceptable that Jew be allowed to represent Britain in the Olympics, regardless of whether he was born in England or not.


Liddell on the other hand faces disapproval from his family and peers within his church community, they believe that his dedication to running is taking over his devotion to God and, when he accidentally misses a prayer meeting because of a racing commitment, Liddell’s sister accuses him of digressing from his Christian Mission. Liddell demonstrates the strength of his religious conviction however by refusing to race on the Sabbath, despite the outcry this raises amongst the British Olympic committee; ultimately demonstrating that, like Abrahams, a dedication to sport is simply one facet of a many sided personality – something that is totally ignored by any short sighted social stereotype.


In many ways the plights of Liddell and Abrahams mirror one another where Liddell fights to show the importance of his religion Abrahams fights to show the unimportance of his. For both men religion is a vital part of their identity, yet Abrahams finds himself constantly struggling against anti-Semitism when he wishes only to demonstrate his sporting prowess.


It is thanks to the Olympics that both these men became household names after their Olympic successes; allowing them both to be fully integrated into the British social community, regardless of their religion or heritage.


By Alyse Garner

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