Sunday, December 24, 2017

V 7 N. 86 Horatio Fitch and the Eric Liddell Story with Film Clips

Dec. 24, 2017
I was recently working on gathering some documents on Harold Abrahams and Eric Liddell the folk heroes of the film  Chariots of Fire when I was contacted by Mike Tymn author of  Running on Third Wind.    Mike had heard about this blog through a friend of his Mike Waters who has become one of our regular readers.  Mr. Tymn has generously lent us several chapters of his book for publication here on Once Upon a Time in the Vest.    Running on Third Wind is available on Amazon for $14.95.  There are about 12 shopping hours before Christmas, so you can probably still get it home by New Years.  Other chapters will be seen in the near future.

Mr. Tymn's chapter is about the man who came second to Eric Liddell in Paris almost 100 years ago, one Horatio Fitch of the University of Illinois.   

Horatio Fitch

April 1984


    It took nearly 60 years for Horatio "Ray" Fitch to receive any real recognition for the silver medal he won at the 1924 Olympic Games in Paris. The irony is if he had won the gold medal he probably would not be getting the current acclaim.
     Fitch was defeated in the 400-meter run by Eric Liddell of Scotland.  Liddell, in case you don't know, is one of the two main characters portrayed in the 1982 Academy Award winning movie, Chariots of Fire.  The story centers on Liddell's rivalry with Harold Abrahams, another British runner.  The two are scheduled to battle it out in the Olympic 100-meter dash when Liddell discovers that the race is on a Sunday.  Being a divinity student and holding Sunday as sacred, Liddell withdraws from the 100 and is given the opportunity to compete in the 400 instead.
    The movie is doubly climactic.  First, Abrahams gloriously wins the 100 over two favored Americans, Charlie Paddock and Jackson Scholz.  Then it is time for the 400.  Liddell in the outside sixth lane, digs his starting holes with a trowel, and walks over to wish good luck to number 216, Fitch, in the fifth lane. At the gun, Liddell jumps into the lead with Fitch in close pursuit.  Liddell leads all the way and breaks the tape a couple of strides in front of Fitch.
    “I had no idea he would win it,” Fitch, 83, told me by phone recently from his mountain cabin, about 75 miles northwest of Denver. "I knew he was a good sprinter, but I didn't know until afterward that he was a quartermiler also.  Coard Taylor (the other American in the race) had been the favorite until the semifinal when I ran 47.8 and broke the world record.  That surprised me as much as anyone, especially since I eased up the last 30 yards to save myself for the finals.  People began to look at me as the favorite and I thought I had a pretty good chance to win it.  Our coach told us not to worry about Liddell because he was a sprinter and he'd pass out 50 yards from the finish."
    Fitch's 2 ½-hour old world record was erased as Liddell recorded 47.6.  Fitch followed in 48.4, while Guy Butler, another British runner, captured the bronze in 48.6.  Taylor fell a few yards from the finish, but crawled over the line for fifth place before collapsing.
    No Big Thing
    Between 1924 and 1982, Fitch was asked to speak about his Olympic experience on only two occasions, once in 1928 and again sometime in the mid-30s. While he secretly cherished his silver medal and had fond memories of his Olympic participation, he got on with life and seldom mentioned what he had done that July afternoon in Paris. "It wasn't that big of a thing until after the movie," he said, laughing.
    Since the movie was released, Fitch has been asked to speak at a number of community and church functions and has been interviewed by several reporters. "I enjoy talking about it.  Heck, I don't have that much else to do these days," he said, again with a laugh.  But Fitch wonders if the movie would have been made had he defeated Liddell and taken away the happy ending.
    Fitch was born and raised in Chicago. He attended the University of Illinois and was cut from the track team his freshman year. "I had to work and didn't have time to train," he explained. "I did make the team the next year, though. I'm probably the only athlete you've ever heard of named Horatio."
    After graduating with a degree in engineering, Fitch went to work for a firm building Chicago’s new Union Station.  He found time, however, to continue to compete for the Chicago Athletic Association.  As a result of winning the AAU Championship in the 440, he was invited to participate in the Olympic Tryouts at Harvard the month before the Paris Games.  He finished behind Taylor, a Princeton graduate who set a new world record of 48.1 in the semifinals and was one of nine quartermilers the U.S. took to Paris.
    “They selected four for the relay and four for the open and took an extra man as back-up,” Fitch explained. “I guess they wanted to give as many people as possible a chance to compete.  They didn’t have the fastest men come back in the relay like they do today.”
    Fitch recalled that it took eight days to make the trip to Paris.  On the ship, the Amerika, the team trained by running around on the deck. “We were jogging around all the time,” he said.  "The relay runners were running up and down passing the baton and yelling out that sprinters were coming.  There was no swimming tank on the ship, so they made one about 15-foot square and maybe four of five feet, deep.  It was crazy to look at guys like Johnny Weissmuller and Duke Kahanamoku with this harness around them and guys outside the tank holding on to them with a rope while they swam in place. I guess it worked."
    Although the movie depicted the race scenes with reasonable accuracy, even to the extent of having the runners in the proper lanes and, with the right numbers, Fitch said that the arrival scene in Paris was nothing like that shown in the movie. There were no photographers, reporters, or large crowds as shown in the movie, just the people of France going about their everyday business. It was in this scene, however, that Fitch's name was mentioned the only time.  Someone on the dock yelled, "There's Fitch."
The other big inaccuracy in the film, Fitch said, had to do with the U.S. coaches. "They weren't all fired up like it showed. They overdid it a little in the movie, I think.  The coaches looked a little ridiculous. Amos Alonzo Stagg was our coach and he just told us to train like we did before and it was fine with him.  When it came time for the heats, he told his athletes to save themselves for the next day. I think some of them saved too much as there were only two of us that got to the final in the 400.”
    Fitch had to run in two heats the day before the finals and then in his world record breaking semifinal the morning of the big race. "I was a little lucky, though," he said. "I was assigned to the 13th and final heat in the first round and there were only two of us, so all we had to do was jog around the track to qualify for the next heat."
    Psyched Out
    Looking back on the race against Liddell, Fitch thinks he may have been psyched out by the stakes and tapes dividing the lanes.  "I had never seen those things before and I was worried about running into one of them," he remarked. "I think I was more concerned about those than I was about Liddell and I may have run a bit too cautiously. When we came to the stretch, I expected to see Liddell slowing down as it didn't seem possible for him to hold that pace.  He ran with his head back and his nose pointing to the sky just like they had it in the movie. I gained a few yards on him near the finish, but it wasn't enough."
     Following the race, Fitch congratulated Liddell, but Liddell seemed very reserved and replied with nothing more than a simple "thank you."
    The awards ceremony did not resemble that of current Olympics. Although the national flags of the first three finishers were raised following the race, the medals were not handed out until the closing ceremony. Then the captain of the team collected the medals and distributed them outside the stadium. "There was no engraving on the medals, so we just grabbed whatever color we had coming to us," Fitch recalled.
    Fitch continued to compete over the next four years as he had hoped to make the team for the '28 Olympics. "But it wasn't like it is now. You didn't go to Colorado Springs and spend all your time training. You had to work back then.  I had a job that kept me on the road quite a bit and I didn't have much time to train.  After I failed to make the team for the '28 Olympics, I said this is it. I'm too old for this, and I haven't run since."
    Fitch later joined the staff of the University of Illinois as an engineering professor and retired from that job in 1969. What took him to the mountains in Colorado?  "Well, my wife was from Colorado and she said I could retire anywhere I wanted as long as it's in Colorado," he replied.  His wife died in 1972 and Fitch now lives alone in his somewhat isolated cabin. When the snow clears, he likes to take short hikes, but finds that he no longer has the strength to climb some of the bigger peaks near his home. Until recently he did a lot of reading, but because of failing eye-sight, he now finds that difficult, so he spends much of his time listening to classical music. .
    Fitch said he would like to take in the Olympics in Los Angeles this year. Trouble is, he can't get a ticket.

     Update:  Fitch died the year after the interview.  

Harold Abrahams training film 1924    seen in training with his coach Sam Mussabini

Eric Liddell winning 400 meters Paris 192
 Everything that Fitch describes about the race can be seen in this video.

Abrahams wins 100 in Paris 1924

Eric Liddell brief bio  1min. 39 sec.

Dear George:

Although I was a distance runner I'm one of your viewers (probably a declining number) who remembers when a trowel was an indispensable tool in a sprinter's kit.

I can remember vividly watching the guys digging their starting holes in the cinder tracks at Rockne Stadium in Chicago and Waldo Stadium in Kalamazoo.

They ought to make that film of Abrahams winning the 100 meters required viewing for today's  dashmen.

Merry Christmas and

Take care,


1 comment:

Brian Fitch said...

Thank you for posting this. I still recall when the film came out. I was in college at the time. As noted in the story, my grandfather never really talked much about his past accomplishments - he was a remarkably humble man. But it was nice to see him enjoy the attention in his late life.
- Brian Fitch

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