History / Sport

Obscure Olympians 7: David Cecil

Having already featured a Liberal MP and peer, here – in the interests of political balance – is a Conservative.

Probably the two most famous of the early British Olympians are Harold Abrahams and Eric Liddell, whose exploits in the 1924 Games were portrayed in Chariots of Fire. But two other members of the Great Britain track and field squad in Paris that year did not consent for their names to be used in the film: 800 metres winner Douglas Lowe and 110m hurdles quarter-finalist David Cecil.

David George Brownlow Cecil, a scion of the Cecil dynasty and also known as Lord Burghley, may not have succeeded in 1924, but four years later he won gold in the 400m hurdles – the first non-American to do so. But by then his place in athletic-cinematic history had been assured.

Unlike the other main characters in Chariots of Fire, Lord Andrew Lindsay, played by Nigel Havers, is fictional. But, with both Lowe and Cecil declining to get involved, Lindsay is very much based on the pair.

David_Burghley_1926In particular, in 1927 Cecil, then student at Magdalene College, Cambridge, became the first person ever to complete the Trinity Great Court Run, getting around the 341-metre quad in fewer than the roughly 43 seconds it takes for the college clock to strike 12. That inspired the scene in which Abrahams achieves the feat, ahead of Lindsay. In reality, though, Abrahams never beat Cecil in the race, hence his veto over using his name in the movie – his daughter Victoria explaining: ‘My father was disappointed and when he was asked to advise on the film he refused.’*

Cecil lost his Olympic title in 1932, finishing fourth, though he did claim a relay silver medal. By then he had become MP for Peterborough, holding the seat until he was appointed Governor of Bermuda in 1943. While serving in Parliament, he was – like the future Conservative MP and peer Seb Coe – busy in sport politics, becoming president of the Amateur Athletic Association and chairman of the British Olympic Association in 1936, then taking the presidency of the International Amateur Athletics Federation (IAAF) in 1946, the year after his return from Bermuda.

He chaired the organising committee of the 1948 London Olympics and, still heading the IAAF in 1968, it fell upon the now Marquess of Exeter (as he had been since 1956) to present the medals for the Olympic 200m. This was the famous occasion when Americans medalists Tommie Smith and John Carlos gave the Black Power salute on the podium. Asked why he thought the athletes were both wearing a single glove, His Lordship replied: ‘I thought they had hurt their hand.’

Having also helped set up the Burghley Horse Trials, his 30-year stint as IAAF chief ended in 1976. Cecil, who had his first artificial hip placed in the bonnet of his Rolls Royce, died (like Douglas Lowe) five years later, the year that Chariots of Fire came out.

* In a further departure from cinematic fiction, he never had his butler place glasses of champagne on the hurdles to improve his technique; instead empty matchboxes were used, which Cecil would attempt to remove without disturbing the obstacle.


Also in this series:
1896 – Launceston Elliot, moustachioed strongman
1900 – CBK Beachcroft, cricketer and music hall star
1908 – City of London Police, coppers made of stone
1912 – Arnold Jackson, runner and Versailles negotiator
1920 – John Wodehouse, polo winner and proto-Bertie Wooster
1932 – Edwards & Clive, rowers and war heroes

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