This one’s for Eric Liddell

Chariots of Fire, the Oscar-winning drama about two British sprinters competing in the 1924 Paris Olympics is to be re-released on 13 July to celebrate London 2012. The Olympic torch relay’s journey around Scotland travelled to St Andrew’s West Sands, where the iconic beach scene in the film was recorded.

I avoided watching it for a long time because it beat Raiders of the Lost Ark (one of my all-time favourites) for a number of Oscars.  Besides, I’m not a runner, and the movie takes place in the 1920’s.  How interesting could it be?  Very interesting, in fact, and filled with a number of coaching lessons, not just for runners, but for business leaders as well.

Starring Ben Cross and the late Ian Charleson as British sprinters competing in the Paris Olympics of 1924, the film won four Oscars at the 1981 Academy Awards, including best original music for Vangelis’s stirring synth-fuelled score – don’t tell me you haven’t run along to the music in slow motion at some time in your life?

Chariots of Fire is about guts, determination and belief. At the heart of the film is the quest for Olympic glory, with personal challenge resonating throughout. The film depicts the struggles of two British Olympic runners – one Jewish, one a deeply religious Christian – to reconcile their love of running with their respective faiths. Discretion, loyalty and self-sacrifice, questions of faith and refusal to compromise, standing for one’s beliefs, achieving something for the sake of it, with passion and not just for fame or financial gain, are even more vital and relevant today.

After initial indifference, it’s now in my all time top-ten favourites and the very first film as an adult that literally moved me to tears (I cried as a little boy when Bambi’s mum was killed by the hunter, and don’t get me going on Babe) in the scene at the film’s climax of Liddell winning the 400m in record time, and then is held on his teammate’s shoulders as his coach, colleagues and future king applaud him.

The film’s title was inspired by the line, Bring me my chariot of fire, from the William Blake poem adapted into the popular British hymn Jerusalem (the hymn is heard at the end of the film).

The ruthlessly determined Harold Abrahams is the son of a Lithuanian Jew, driven partly by a desire to overcome the anti-Semitic prejudice that he encounters, not least among the dons when he goes up to Cambridge in 1919. He becomes the first person to complete the Trinity Great Court Run, running around the college courtyard in the time it takes for the clock to strike 12. Abrahams achieves an undefeated string of victories in various national running competitions.

Eric Liddell, as the son of a China-based Scottish missionary, is powered by his unremitting Christian faith, something that causes consternation when he pulls out of a 100m Olympics heat because it is to be run on a Sunday. Different in some ways, the two men are markedly similar in others: both show a self-punishing dedication and both jeopardise their emotional relationships with others, to achieve success on the track.

When Eric Liddell accidentally misses a church prayer meeting because of his running, his sister Jennie upbraids him and accuses him of no longer caring about God. Eric tells her that though he intends to eventually return to the China mission, he feels divinely inspired when running, and that not to run would be to dishonour God: I believe that God made me for a purpose. But He also made me fast, and when I run, I feel His pleasure.

Liddell’s faith is a problem at the Olympics as the 100m final is slated for a Sunday, but he switches events to the 400m thanks to team-mate Lord Andrew Lindsay, who having already won a silver medal in the 400m hurdles, yields his place in the 400m race on the following Thursday to Liddell, who gratefully agrees. His religious convictions in the face of national athletic pride make headlines around the world.

Abrahams is badly beaten by the heavily favoured United States runners in the 200m race. He knows his last chance for a medal will be the 100m. He competes in the race, and wins. His coach Sam Mussabini is overcome that the years of dedication and training have paid off with an Olympic gold medal. After Abrahams’ victory, the camera cuts away to Mussabini in his hotel room. He looks across to the stadium, and all he sees is the Union flag being raised, and the distant sound of the anthem. And he removes his hat, and punches it. Very few more beautiful scenes in all of cinema.

Before Liddell’s race, the American coach remarks dismissively to his runners that Liddell has little chance of doing well in his now far longer 400m race. But one of the American runners, Jackson Scholz, hands Liddell a note of support for his convictions. Liddell defeats the American favourites and wins the gold medal.

The British team returns home triumphant. As the film ends, onscreen text explains that Abrahams married Sybil, and became the elder statesman of British athletics. Eric Liddell went on to missionary work in China. All of Scotland mourned his death in 1945 in Japanese-occupied China. Liddell’s own story after 1924 could have spawned it’s own film and ironically, this Guardian story on Liddell ran ironically on the anniversary of Charleson’s death in 1991- both strange and wonderful:

Besides a great, evocative and poignant story, there are several relevant insights to stimulate our current day business thinking:

Look forward, not backwards over your shoulder. Harold, the 100m runner, hires a trainer because he falls short at the finish and doesn’t know why.  His trainer shows him a videotape of the race, where Harold right near the finish looks back at his competition costing him few precious fractions of time.

You can’t press ahead at your goals while at the same time watching what everyone else is doing.  Yes, you need an understanding of the market landscape, just like a runner can’t just wander into other people’s lanes, but other than that keep the focus straight ahead at the goal. It’s very hard to take an objective view and see what you’re doing wrong – that’s why athletes hire coaches.

Stick to your personal values. Eric actually beats out Harold for the Olympic spot and then refuses to run because the race is on a Sunday.  The British government pressures him, and he still won’t run.  As it turns out, a 400m runner gives up his spot so Eric can still represent at the Olympics and maintain the Sabbath.

There will be times when you will feel like you need to do things a certain way in order to move ahead.  Some things may be negotiable but your values are not.  You don’t need to give up who you are to be successful.

Be true to yourself. At the start of the 400m, Eric shakes hands with each of the competitors and introduces himself.  It’s natural for him but in the world of competitive sports it’s completely unexpected.  Then he leaves them in the dust with his superior running ability.

You don’t have to be aggressive or show a killer instinct, if your natural predisposition is to be sunny and warm.  Sure, some work environments will be competitive and will want to hire people in that mould, so you may miss out on these spots. But other environments will prefer warm and welcoming, and if you try to show off a competitive streak, you’ll miss out here. Better to be who you are, and run the race your own way.

Set realistic personal objectives. Harold is driven to be the fastest runner in the world. After watching Abrahams in a 100m race, and – for the first time ever – Abrahams loses, nosed out by Liddell, Mussabini approaches him and says simply:  Mr Abrahams, I can find you another two yards.

What he meant was:  If you train with me and follow my instructions, over the same elapsed time, you can be two yards farther ahead. Why did Mussabini use those exact words?  Why didn’t he say I can make you a winner?  Because Mussabini knew that gaining two yards is absolute, but winning a race is relative.  He could predictably ensure the former, but the latter was beyond his control, because winning a race depends on the other runners, too.

Target improvements in several aspects of your performance Over the next days and weeks, Mussabini improved specific parts of Abrahams’s mechanics and running technique. He shortened Abraham’s stride and lowered his arm action.  He found ways to get more power at the start, and improved the dip at the finish.  All of those things are absolute—they don’t depend on anyone else.

Mussabini also emphasised mental preparation, familiarising Abrahams with the tendencies of his major rivals, not just Liddell but the two leading Americans, Charles Paddock and Jackson Scholz.  It was important to learn their times, their habits, their strengths.  Winning a race would call for every possible advantage. As a result, Abrahams became a faster runner, and he improved his chances of success.

But Mussabini knew better than to guarantee a win.  Why?  Because at the same moment, Abrahams’s rivals were also working on their technique, their conditioning, their mental preparation.  They were all committed to improving themselves, as well.  If Abrahams found those two yards but his rivals improved by two yards and half, he wouldn’t win.  A race is a relative contest, and absolute improvement guarantees nothing.

Company performance is better understood as relative, not absolute.  Following a formula cannot ensure success because if our rivals are doing the same things, we’ll be no better off.  In business, there is a need to do things differently than rivals, which necessarily entails risks.  That’s not a comforting notion – far more pleasant is the idea that managers can follow a simple set of steps to achieve greatness. But of course, that doesn’t work.

For a man whose athletics career was so brief and is now so distant, Liddell continues to cast a lengthy shadow. It took until the 1980 Games for another Scot to win a gold medal, and until 2004 for another China-born athlete to win a gold medal on the track. After the 1980 100m final race, Allan Wells having won the 100m title that Liddell was denied by an accident of scheduling, the victor simply said: That one’s for Eric Liddell