Unbeknown to a rapt Hampstead Theatre enjoying a stage version of Chariots of Fire last month, an even greater drama took place before curtain up. It was a historic meeting between the two daughters of the great Olympians Harold Abrahams and Eric Liddell, gold medallists at the 1924 Paris Olympics, on which the hit movie was based. The audience consisted of an RT writer and photographer.
Sue Pottle, who was adopted by the Abrahams when she was three, and Patricia Russell, the daughter of Eric Liddell, are both now well into late middle age, but they have never met, never corresponded or spoken on the phone. Just as their fathers had been thrown together by the Olympics movement, so too have they as an ITV documentary and next week’s re-release of the 1981 film capitalise on the London Olympics.
They look at each other with curiosity and affection. In a common cause such as this, there seems no room for rivalry. The same was true of their fathers, they say, despite the competitive relationship that the film portrayed. If the daughters ever minded such falsifications in the interests of drama, they appear indifferent to them now.
They’ve lived their lives half a world apart but have shared the strange distinction of having been parented by icons of sporting history.
Sue Pottle’s adoptive father died in England 34 years ago at the age of 78, but Patricia Russell’s father Eric, winner of the 400 metres, died in China at the tragically young age of 43. Patricia was six when she last saw him and remembers him sitting her on his knee and telling her to look after her mother, her four-year-old sister and the baby that was on its way.
That scene took place in China, where Liddell, a devout Christian, was a missionary as the world was erupting in war. What does she remember of it, and of him? Patricia thinks hard and says, “We would have stayed in China, but with the Chinese, the Communists, the nationalists and the Japanese, not to mention a new baby coming, my father finally decided we would be far safer going back to Canada, having the baby, and then he would join us there. Then, of course, Pearl Harbor happened and the whole world changed. For everyone. But when he said he would come and join us, it never occurred to me that we’d never see him again. “
Towards the end of the war Liddell appeared to be suffering some kind of collapse. He had blinding headaches. One foot started to drag. At first his own explanation was that his faith must be wanting. The truth was more prosaic. He had an inoperable brain tumour and died in 1945.
Abrahams, winner of the 100 metres, had a longer life, but a briefer athletics career. It came to an abrupt end the year after the Paris Olympics when he broke his leg while long-jumping and returned to the legal profession. Later he was a journalist and BBC commentator, revolutionising the athletics rulebook and campaigning for such advances as the photo finish and electronic timing. Known as the grandfather of British Olympics, he was also the timekeeper for Roger Bannister’s historic four-minute mile in Oxford in 1954.
Daughter Sue says it was not until she was older that she came to realise who and what he was and learnt to idolise him. “Because he was so tied up with everything he did, whether it was with athletics or the National Parks, we didn’t see an awful lot of him. We lived in Bishop’s Stortford, about 40 miles from London; when we got up in the morning he had gone to work, and by the time he got back home at eight or nine, we’d gone to bed.”
Whatever the differences in their lives, both women agree the gold medals meant an enormous amount to their fathers and their descendants. But what of the medals themselves? Liddle’s daughter Patricia admits to having neglected them for years. “It was all a great upheaval. He didn’t come back. My mother was working. There were three of us children. She did re-marry eventually. Things got moved and mixed up. We had several baskets of medals, including the Olympic ones, but we didn’t pay much attention to them. I had three children, my sister had four and the third had two. When we couldn’t decide what to do with the medals, we agreed to ask Edinburgh University, where my father studied, to look after them. And that’s where they are now on display.”
They came by post, she recalls, as the medals’ rims had to be embossed with the winners’ names, the event and date. Sue Pottle nods, adding that there was insufficient postage on her father’s package and he had to pay the balance. Her father had his gold displayed in a little wooden frame, with the signatures of the other competitors including bronze medallist Arthur Porritt of New Zealand, father of environmentalist Jonathon Porritt.
But where is that medal now? In a subplot that would intrigue Chariots producer David Puttnam, Sue fears it was stolen and then melted down or dropped into a drain by an individual who bore the family a grudge. As for the remainder, she and her brother sold them to the then Harrods owner Mohamed Al Fayed in 1989 for £25,000. “I suppose,” she says, “our father, if he thought we would be helped by the sale, would have agreed to it.”
We shan’t see their like again, shall we? The mould that made them has gone the way of that medal. Both women nod and agree that their world is gone for good. This is not all bad news since Abrahams was subjected to anti-Semitism of a sort hard to imagine today. At his public school, says Sue, he was compelled to attend chapel and yet forbidden from reading the lesson.
Patricia thinks her father Eric would have been dismayed by the professional athletics of today. “Everything has become so national now,” she says. “You have to do it for your country. He was the fastest on the day. Not every day, but that day. That was enough for him.”
The digitally remastered Chariots of Fire is released in cinemas from 13 July
The Real Chariots of Fire is on ITV1 tonight at 9:00pm
Faster, Higher, Stronger: Stories from the Olympic Games, BBC2: This four-part series examines the history of the modern Games through the athletes who pushed themselves to the limit in four disciplines: the 100 metres, gymnastics, 1500 metres and swimming.
Olympics’ Most Amazing Moments, BBC3: A countdown of stunning, bizarre, heroic and tragic moments, including the Japanese gymnast who secured gold with a broken knee.
Tom Daley: Going for Gold, BBC1: Britain’s poster boy has dreamt of competing at London for most of his young life but the final year of training has been his most challenging, with the death of his father, A-Level pressures and commercial commitments, as this profile reveals.
Bert and Dickie, BBC1: Co-starring Matt Smith and Sam Hoare (above), this feature-length drama shows how two young men, Bert Bushnell and Dickie Burnel, defied all the odds to triumph in the double sculls of the 1948 London Olympics.
ALL PROGRAMMES SCHEDULED TO BE SHOWN IN JULY.