Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Chariots of Fire

by Drew Martin
The other night I watched Chariots of Fire, a 1981 British historical (yet horribly inaccurate) drama that won four Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Screenplay. I first saw it in the movie theater as a tween when it came out but at that time it was for me simply a movie about running and not so much about its greater theme of religious faith. It highlights two runners who represent Great Britain at the 1924 summer Olympics in Paris: Eric Liddell, a Christian Scot, and Harold Abrahams, a Jewish Englishman, who won the 400 and 100 meter events, respectively.

Aside from the numerous fabrications and reversals of events, there are a couple other sticking points of this dramatization beyond what is shown. As a runner, the biggest deletion from this tale of the 1924 Olympics is the overwhelming success of the Finns in all the long distance events. I once worked with the great nephew of Paavo Nurmi, the Flying Finn, who ran in the 1924 Olympics and dominated the 1500 and 5K meter races, and the individual cross-country race, and was on the teams that won the 3K team race and the team cross country race. His teammate Ville Ritola won the 3K steeplechase and the 10K, and his teammate Albin Stenroos won the marathon. The middle image here is a copy of the Paavo Nurmi statue (outside the Olympic stadium in Helsinki). The original is at the Ateneum art museum in Helsinki. 

While the film entertains an interfaith dialogue and addresses class issues, watching it as an adult it is hard to see past the overtly WASPy sentiments. As with the Finns, whose efforts are pretty much dismissed, black athletes are almost entirely ignored except for a few glimpses. Where on this world stage less than a hundred years ago were the Caribbean sprinters, north African middle distance elite, and East African long distance runners who now hold the world records, and what were all the obstacles these modern stars had to overcome to be selected to train and compete?

We all know that Jesse Owens was immensely popular and successful in the Berlin Olympics of 1936. Within 45 minutes he broke five world records, equaled in a sixth. His long jump record stood for another 25 years and his team’s 4x100 meters record remained untouched for two decades. But Jesse was one of 17 African Americans competing and I personally do not know much about their successes.

Even though the Olympics were first recorded in 776 BCE (and probably existed for many years before then) the modern games were not rebooted until 1896. The first black athlete to compete at the Olympics was Constantin Henriquez de Zubiera (pictured top left in the top image square), on the French rugby team in 1900. The first black athlete to win a gold medal was African-American John Baxter Taylor (pictured bottom left in the top image square), as part of the US relay team in 1908.

The big turning point that brought attention to East Africa wasn’t until 1960, when the Ethiopian marathoner Abebe Bikila (pictured right in the top image square) ran barefoot all the way in Rome and won the gold medal with a time of 2:15:16. Bikila was actually trained by the Finnish-born Swede Onni Niskanen who had been hired by the Ethiopian government to find potential athletes. He ran barefoot because the ADIDAS-sponsored shoes he was given were not comfortable and so he decided to run the way he had trained, without shoes. I always thought his barefoot marathon was light years ahead of other marathons but his time only bested the Soviet Sergei Popov’s record set two years earlier by less than a second. And three years later it was beat by Toru Terasawa of Japan, then Leonard Edelen of the United States and then by a couple Brits before Bikila returned to run a 2:12:11.2 in 1964. Tragically a car accident in 1969 left him a quadriplegic. 

A series of sub 2:10 marathon records were set by an Australian then lowered by runners from Japan, Holland, Australia, the UK and Portugal. It wasn’t until 1988 that another Ethiopian broke the standing record by 22 seconds with a 2:06:50. That stood until a Brazilian beat it by almost a minute, followed by the phenomenal Moroccan runner Khalid Khannouchi who ran a 2:05:42. He then broke his record as an American citizen a year later in 2002 by four seconds. Since that time the records have been broken by Kenyan and Ethiopian runners and remains at 2:02:57 by the Kenyan Dennis Kimetto.

The women’s side is a different story with Paula Radcliffe of Great Britain who ran a 2:15:25 in 2003; a breathtaking record that has held off the best female Kenyan and Ethiopian runners by more than three minutes for more than a dozen years.

While it’s assumed that East Africans will continue to dominate long distance events based on early 21 Century results and a multitude of explanations from genetics to body mass index, a Runner’s World article from two years ago took a more open-minded approach through data-crunching of 10,000 top marathon performances for the past half a century in order to answer their title question: What Will It Take to Run a 2-Hour Marathon? which echoes the quest of the 4-minute mile in the early 1950s. 

To run a sub-two would require a pace under 4:35 per mile. My best mile as a mid-40’s male was a 4:34. It hurts to think about it. Runner's World came up with a perfect race for a perfect runner, which may even be run in a part of the world without much race support at present time and by someone from a part of the world not yet tested for elite long distance running. Have faith.

Check out the Runner's World article with great infographics here: