Celebrated globally as the “Chariots of Fire” Olympics, the Paris 1924 Games unearthed a future Tarzan, a distance running legend, the godfather of surfing and Australia’s first sporting superstar.
The youngest in this Parisian parade of stars was Andrew “Boy” Charlton, a mere 16-year-old from Sydney’s Manly Beach when he joined 3,000 athletes from 44 countries in France a century ago.
Charlton turned 17 on the eve of his 1500m freestyle heat and celebrated with a world record that was immediately broken in the next heat by Swede Arne Borg, who already had four world records.
In the highly-anticipated final, Borg led for the first 300m but Charlton surged past to win gold by 40 metres, becoming the first in a long line of Australian 1500m champions.
He also broke Borg’s world record by a minute, setting a time of 20m6.6s, and followed up with a bronze in the 400m behind silver-medallist Borg and American victor Johnny Weissmuller, who would go on to star as Tarzan in a dozen Hollywood films.
Weissmuller, who also played Jungle Jim in 16 movies, had already won the 100m freestyle gold medal ahead of two-time champion Duke Kahanamoku, the Hawaiian noble who made the sport of surfing famous worldwide. He also has statues at Sydney’s Freshwater Beach and Huntington Beach in California.
But as far as the new nation of Australia was concerned, “Boy” Charlton, just six years younger than his country after Federation in 1901, was the star of this Paris show. He also collected a silver medal in the 4x200m relay with Australian teammates Frank Beaurepaire, Maurice Christie and Ernest Henry.
The Official History of the Australian Olympic Movement, written by the late, great Harry Gordon said of Charlton: “Probably no athlete before him had been the subject of such national adulation.
“The Paris Olympics conferred on him a folk-hero status, of the rare kind that would later come to Don Bradman and Dawn Fraser.”
Charlton’s gold medals certainly overshadowed those of his fellow Manly residents Dick Eve and Nick Winter.
Eve won gold in the men’s high diving on the same day as Charlton’s 1500m victory, and Nick Winter had won the triple jump gold medal in the athletics a few days earlier.
The other Australian hero from these Paris Games was Charlton’s 4x200m relay teammate Beaurepaire, who finished third behind him in the 1500m.
After also taking bronze in the 1500m at the 1908 and 1920 Games, Beaurepaire became the first Australian to win medals at three different Olympics.
Beaurepaire, who was awarded 500 pounds after trying to save a lifesaver who died from a shark attack at Sydney’s Coogee Beach in 1922, went on to establish his own tyre company and was knighted after also twice serving as Melbourne mayor.
Despite the feats in the pool by Charlton, Eve, Beaurepaire, Duke Kahanamoku, and Weissmuller (who also won a bronze medal with the US water polo team), it was the action on the track that captured the world’s imagination.
British legends Harold Abrahams and Eric Liddell won the 100m and the 400m respectively, with their stories celebrated in the Academy Award-winning 1981 film Chariots of Fire.
Liddell, a Scottish rugby player and missionary who would die in a Chinese internment camp in 1945, had refused to compete in the 100m dash because it was held on a Sunday.
Despite being Britain’s 100m champion, he entered the 400m instead leaving the way open for the professionally-trained Abrahams, who beat the favoured Americans to win the 100m.
Abrahams broke his foot in the long jump a year later but went on to become Britain’s leading track and field journalist for more than 40 years.
Back in Paris, America’s Harold Osborn won the decathlon and the high jump which resulted in worldwide media coverage that earned him the title “world’s greatest athlete”.
Yet the biggest star of these Olympics was a distance runner from Finland who won five gold medals.
“Flying Finn” Paavo Nurmi won the 1500m and 5,000m despite the races being held only an hour apart. He also won the individual cross country and picked up two team gold medals in the 3000m and cross country team events.
After his three previous gold medals at the 1920 Antwerp Games in the 10,000m and individual and team cross country, Nurmi’s performance in Paris and his 10,000m gold medal in Amsterdam four years later cemented his reputation as the greatest distance runner of all time.
With such stellar performances on the track and in the pool, Paris 1924 marked the dawn of the Olympic Games as the world’s pre-eminent international sporting event.
And much of the credit goes to former International Olympic Committee president and father of the Olympic movement, Pierre de Coubertin.
Wanting to give his native France a chance to redeem itself after the many catastrophes of the earlier Paris 1900 Games, one of his final acts as IOC president was to transfer the 1924 Games from Amsterdam to Paris.
The 1924 Games also provided many other firsts. Among them were: the Olympic motto, “Citius, Altius, Fortius” (“Faster, Higher, Stronger”); athletes stayed in a “village” of wooden cabins (a forerunner of the Olympic Villages); the introduction of a standard 50m pool with marked lanes; and the Closing Ceremony ritual of raising three flags – the Olympic flag, the Host Nation’s flag, and the next Host Nation’s flag.
It was a triumph.