Versatile Ryan breathes new fire into the life of Harold Abrahams

Mark Ryan fervently believes that a good journalist should be able to turn his or her hand to any subject, regardless of prior knowledge, and seems to have proved his point with his biography of Harold Abrahams, the British sprinter immortalised in the movie, Chariots of Fire

Ryan’s new book Running With Fire: The Harold Abrahams Story has already won acclaim in the athletics world for the depth and accuracy of the author’s research as well as the quality of the writing and yet the Mail on Sunday sports writer admits he began the project as something of a novice in the subject.

“I’d done a bit of athletics but not a heck of a lot and I’m certainly no expert,” he said. “But I loved Chariots of Fire and when I began thinking about a book I might do with the 2012 Olympics coming up I found that while there had been books written on Eric Liddell there was nothing about Harold Abrahams.

“I never thought I wasn’t qualified to do it because I’m a hard worker and as a journalist if you put your heart and soul into something, you can do anything.

“I wrote a spy book about the Danish resistance and I knew nothing about that when I started.  But by the time I had finished I was able to point out mistakes in the Museum of Danish Resistance in Copenhagen.”

Ryan’s back catalogue shows his versatility.   He has written biographies of tennis star Justine Henin and England football manager Fabio Capello, and a book about the USA rugby team and their shock success at the 1924 Paris Olympics, entitled For The Glory. His spy story, The Hornet’s Sting, focused on the extraordinary life of Tommy Sneum, the Danish aviator who became a wartime espionage agent for Britain.

Abrahams, who was also a headline-maker at the 1924 Games,  was a massive figure in athletics, not only for beating the American favourites to win the 100m in Paris but in his subsequent years as a journalist and an athletics administrator.  He was one of the timekeepers when Roger Bannister ran the first sub-four-minute mile at Oxford in 1954.

He was also a proud guardian of athletics history and a stickler for accuracy.  Ryan was determined to do justice to his life and rather than take chances with sketchy facts he made sure he had genuine experts he could call on to supply essential detail and put right any errors.

“I’ve been really, really lucky to have lots of experts helping me, which was one of the big joys of doing the project.   They included Mel Watman, who used to be editor of Athletics Weekly and is part of the National Union of Track Statisticians.  He lives and breathes athletics and he was absolutely brilliant, looking through everything to make sure I didn’t make mistakes.

“There was Peter Lovesey, who is a successful novelist and athletics historian as well, and Kevin Kelly from Herne Hill Harriers.  They and others were just fantastic in making sure the author did not make an idiot of himself.

“It was a fantastic education for me, I absolutely loved it. I hope there is a freshness and enthusiasm to it that perhaps comes from not having spent your whole life in the sport, and from the excitement of learning new things.

“I felt the pressure, the pressure to do Harold Abrahams proud and do the right thing by him.  Fortunately, Sue Pottle, his adopted daughter, and all the family members have come back to me and said how happy they are with it.

“And one of the athletics historians said it was the best athletics biography he’d ever read.  That sounds like me blowing my own trumpet but it was such a thrill to hear him say that.”

Ryan’s research revealed the depth and complexity of Abrahams as a man and he was captivated by the story of the athlete’s difficult romance with the British opera singer, Sybil Evers, which took place not only while Abrahams, by now a journalist, was at personal risk by travelling to Hitler’s Germany as a Jew, but while he was also undergoing psychotherapy because of a phobic fear of marriage.

“Abrahams was going to the Berlin as a Jew reporting for the BBC, who did not want him to go because they were scared of offending Hitler, incredibly,” Ryan said.  “He went under his own steam but while this was going on his the love letters show that he was in therapy, totally phobic about marriage, incredibly mentally fragile.

“And yet he had this fantastic woman, his opera singer fiancee, supporting him, being very patient with him, trying to reassure him that their relationship would be okay and would not all end in heartbreak.   I found myself being almost jealous because the strength of that relationship was amazing.

“It is a wonderful story. He went to the Hitler Olympics and his description of Jack Lovelock’s victory in the mile became one of the iconic pieces of commentary because he became so emotional about the race he began cheering Lovelock on like a supporter, exclaiming when he won ‘my God, he’s done it’.

“Nobody had ever behaved like that before at the BBC and it created such waves that he came back triumphant on a professional level and at the end of that year summoned the courage to marry Sybil Evers.

“It was done at two days’ notice, with no relatives invited, a sudden, spontaneous thing because they knew that if they made a big deal about it he would get the phobia and not be able to do it.”

Abrahams suffered less for his Jewishness than some might suppose, in Ryan’s estimation.

“Chariots of Fire was true in that there was anti-semitism but there was probably less than the film suggested,” he said.

“He suffered anti-semitism at school in Repton and to a lesser extent at Cambridge,” he said.  “Overall he did not suffer anti-semitism all that much but what he did was to use such anti-semitism as he did suffer to his advantage.

“He sort of had a switch inside his head -- if he needed the anger, the fire in him to run, he would call upon any perceived anti-semitism.  He admitted once that even when he was not suffering anti-semitism he would imagine that he was, wondering whether when anything went wrong in his life it was because he was Jewish.

“There was a moment before he ran the 100m final in Paris, when the American section of the crowd was cheering for Jackson Scholz and Charlie Paddock, that Harold employed this mechanism in his brain where he would say to himself ‘everybody hates me, but I’m used to that from the anti-semitism and I will use that anger to help me win the race’.

“That’s the way he thought.  I think he fed more off the American fans and the feeling of alienation that he was used to than any British support he had there.”

Ryan hopes Running With Fire, published by JR Books, will find an audience in the run-up to London 2012, when the re-release of Chariots of Fire will focus new attention on Abrahams and his contemporaries.

“In a way, it would make a nice sequel.  I have approached a few production companies for the BBC about maybe taking the events of 1936 and turning them into a drama-documentary.

“To me, the idea of a very mentally fragile Jewish guy going to the most frightening place in the world at the time, with his romance almost crumbling due to his phobias, and yet somehow turning it all around and coming out on top, is such an amazing story.”

Buy Running With Fire: The Harold Abrahams Story

Mark Ryan’s other books are:

Justine Henin: From Tragedy to Triumph
Fabio Capello: The Boss
For the Glory: Two Olympics, Two Wars, Two Heroes
World Rugby, The Greatest Rugby Moments & Players of the Last 100 Years
The Hornet's Sting: The Amazing Untold Story of Britain's Second World War Spy Thomas Sneum

To browse more sports books, visit The Sports Bookshelf Shop.



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