The movie is based on the true story of two British athletes competing in the 1924 Summer Olympics in Paris. Englishman Harold Abrahams (Ben Cross), who is Jewish, overcomes anti-Semitism and class prejudice in order to compete against the "Flying Scotsman", Eric Liddell (Ian Charleson), in the 100-meter race.
In 1919, Abrahams enters Cambridge University. He attempts and succeeds at the Trinity Great Court run, which involves running around the court before the clock finishes striking 12. Meanwhile, Liddell sees running as a way of glorifying God before traveling to China to work as a missionary. He represents Scotland against Ireland, and preaches a sermon on "Life as a race" afterwards.
At their first meeting, Liddell shakes Abrahams' hand to wish him well, then beats him in a race. Abrahams takes it badly, but Sam Mussabini (Ian Holm), a professional trainer that he had approached earlier, offers to take him on to improve his technique. However, this attracts criticism from the college authorities.
Eric's sister Jenny (Cheryl Campbell) worries he is too busy running to concern himself with their mission, but Eric tells her he feels inspired: "I believe that God made me for a purpose... (the mission), but He also made me fast, and when I run, I feel His pleasure."
Despite pressure from the Prince of Wales and the British Olympic committee, Liddell refuses to run a heat of the 100 meters at the Olympics because his Christian convictions prevent him from running on Sunday. Liddell is allowed to compete in the 400-meter race instead. Liddell at church on Sunday is seen quoting Isaiah 40, verse 31: 'But they that wait upon the LORD shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and be not weary; and they shall walk, and not faint.'
The story compares the similar athletic experiences of Abrahams and Liddell while portraying their vastly different characters and reactions to adversity. High accomplishment comes to those with high aspirations, high energy and the capacity for great effort. But the central motivation and ultimate results of their accomplishment depend on their character and personality. This is a true story about two very different British athletes who accomplish at the highest level in their field, yet are driven to these achievements by very different motives along very different paths.
Englishman Harold Abrahams is the son of a wealthy Jewish financier in London. Highly sensitive to the anti-Semitic sentiments of the British upper class, he is determined to prove his worth and acceptability in everything he does. A runner of remarkable ability, in 1919 he enters Cambridge University and promptly completes a running feat which no one has been able to accomplish for 700 year. Abrahams’ passionate aspiration is to win a gold medal in the 100 meters at the 1924 summer Olympics in Paris.
While at Cambridge, Abrahams meets a lovely young singer Sybil Gordon and they soon fall in love. To her he confesses his heart’s turmoil. He has gone through life with a sense of helplessness, anger and humiliation because of the second-class treatment rendered to him as a Jew. To him running is a means of seeking revenge and conquering the social opposition. “I am going to take them on one by one and run them off their feet.” He strives to fit in and prove himself a loyal and capable Englishman. “So you love running?” Sybil asks him. “I am an addict. It's more of a weapon. It’s a competition. You win because you are ruthless. ... A weapon against being Jewish, I suppose. I’m semi-deprived. They lead me to water but won’t let me drink.”
Eric Liddell is the son of deeply religious Scottish missionaries, born and raised along with his sister Jennie in China and recently returned to Europe. Eric is a born runner with tremendous speed and a natural love of the sport who becomes widely known as the "Flying Scotsman." Committed to a missionary’s life like his parents, Eric is requested by his church leader to dedicate his remarkable athletic ability to the service of god. “Run in God’s name” and let the whole world know it is God’s inspiration that makes you a champion. He too is destined for the Paris Olympics for the glory for God.
The first time Abrahams sees Liddell run he is bedazzled. Eric collides with another runner, falls down during a 400-meter contest between Scotland and France and appears to be out of the race. Then miraculously he gets up, starts running again, makes up a 20-meter deficit and wins the race. This indicates just how great is the unexpressed human energy which can be released in the right circumstances. It took the accidental fall to bring out the true greatness of Eric’s potential. “I’ve never seen such commitment and drive in a runner,” Abrahams remarks. Even more remarkable is the obvious joy with which Liddell runs. He tells Jennie, “I believe god made me for a purpose – China. He also made me fast. When I’m running I feel his pleasure, not just fun. To win is to honor him.”
The amateur spirit of the Olympics is still respected in Europe and professionalism is shunned. But times are changing. Sam Mussabini, a brilliant professional running coach, is looking for talent to shape. Abrahams approaches Sam and tries to hire him as a personal coach. Sam replies that it is customary for the coach to choose a worthy student, not vice versa. Abrahams is willing to break the rules in order to accomplish. Sam knows that social rules may be broken, but there are rules for accomplishment that cannot. At their first meeting, Liddell shakes Abrahams' hand to wish him well, then beats him. Abrahams is crushed by the defeat and cries out to Sybil. “I don’t run to take beatings. I run to win. If I can’t win I won’t run. Now what do I stand for?” After the race, Sam contacts Abrahams and offers to train him for the Olympics, assuring Harold that he can improve enough to match Eric. Even though the university authorities frown on his hiring a coach, Abrahams persists.
On the boat sailing across the Channel to France, Liddell is informed that the preliminary heat for the 100 meters is to be run on a Sunday. He informs the British team leader that his religion prevents him from running on that day and he will have to forgo the race. “If I win, I win for God. To win on Sunday would be against God’s law.” Once in Paris, the team leader informs the rest of the British Olympic committee, which includes the crown prince, and they call Liddell and press him to relent. When he adamantly refuses, life responds and unexpectedly presents a solution. Lord Lindsay, another member of team who has just won a silver medal in another event, offers his place in the 400 meters to Liddell. Another member of the Committee explains how fortunate it is that they did not try to force Liddell to violate his conscience. He is “a true man of principle and a true athlete. His speed is a mere extension of his life, its force. We sought to separate his running from himself. For him it is God before King.” Whatever the mind fervently believes in – whether higher ideal or mere superstition – has the power to evoke a response from life. The power of Eric’s belief is equal to the power of all those of his community who share that belief.
Abrahams faces Americans in the 100-meter final who are touted to include the fastest men on earth. He has already lost two races to the same competitors. Before the race he confesses to Sam, “I am 24 and I have never known contentment. I’m ever in pursuit and I don’t know what I’m chasing. I’ve known the fear of losing. Now I’m almost too frightened to win.” Abrahams goes on to win the event and emerge with the title of fastest man on earth. After the race he and Sam celebrate in private their shared personal accomplishment. He lived for another 54 years and was considered the grand icon of British athletics. Eric races in the 400 meter against equally tough competitors and wins his race as well. He mixes with the crowds in jubilant celebration. After the Olympics, he returned to China where he died during World War II.
Who accomplished what and how? Driven by a complex and a fervent aspiration to win a respectable place in English society, Abrahams has achieved the greatest title in amateur athletics. The drive for social acceptability is a very powerful motive. He has leveraged the energy of that drive for achievement. He ran in the name of his country and under the banner of patriotism, but really he ran for himself. For him running was a labor in a life and death struggle for acceptance and respectability. It is doubtful whether even this remarkable accomplishment gave him the peace and fulfillment he was seeking. Liddell ran in the name of God and for the joy of self-giving to his God. His very act of running was a self-fulfilling joy. One believes in his concept of God and service, the other in his own inner potential. Both accomplish on the basis of their beliefs.
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