Chariots of fire?

The film Chariots of Fire appeared in 1981. It was a British film, which cost tuppence to make, contained no sex scenes, violence or bankable stars and yet somehow won the Oscar for ‘Best Film’.

Perhaps it was the story.

It is set around the 1924 Olympics in Paris and follows the lives of two real-life individuals: Harold Abrahams and Eric Liddell, who both won gold medals at the event.

They’re different. Harold is an English Jew and Eric, a Scottish Christian – and they run for different reasons.

Harold’s father was a Jewish immigrant from Polish Lithuania. Amid anti-Semitism among the Cambridge elite, he races to prove something about his worth. He even employs a professional coach, which, given the amateur nature of the sport, is not viewed well by the establishment: ‘Not the done thing at all, old fellow.’

But Harold made it the done thing; he wanted to win.

Eric, in contrast, doesn’t appear to run for himself. His headmaster at Eltham College, George Robertson, described him as being ‘entirely without vanity.’ Others speak of his generosity of spirit.

 The sense is that he runs not to prove his own worth, but God’s.

His devout sister is angry at him for wasting his time with this running nonsense, when he should be in the mission field, like his parents. That surely is what God wants?

But he tells her this: ‘He made me fast. And when I run, I feel his pleasure.’

Eric almost didn’t run at all. When he heard his heats for the 100 metres were on a Sunday, he withdrew from the event. Nothing meant more than observing the Sabbath. He only won gold because a team mate offered him his place in the 400 metres which was on a weekday. So he ran that instead.

And I like both Harold and Eric. They help me with the seasons of life.

There is a season for proving something to ourselves – and maybe the world. This is what the first half of life is about.

There is a season for putting our will to work, for discovering what’s possible for us, because life is an adventure. Like Harold, we push as hard as we can with the gifts and luck we are given; we exist bodily, emotionally and intentionally in the world and see where it all leads.

And then there is a season for understanding that unless there is joy, there is nothing. Without joy, the desperate and insecure need to achieve is just that – desperate and insecure.

Harold accessed his will which led to action and personal validation and achievement.

Eric accessed transcendence which led to joy and a story beyond his own.

And then? Harold, a lawyer, returned to the bar for a while and then excelled in sports commentary for the BBC. He died in 1978.

Eric went immediately to China with the China Inland Mission and died in a Japanese Internment camp in 1945. His last words were, ‘It’s complete surrender’.

They both drove chariots of fire and I wish I could play this piece out with the magnificent theme tune by Vangelis…but it’s here if you want it, in a video featuring Harold and Eric.

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