The film begins at the 1978 memorial of the runner Harold Abrahams. It then moves back to 1919 when Abrahams (played by Ben Cross), the son of a wealthy Jewish financier, arrives at the University of Cambridge. He becomes the first sprinter to complete the Trinity Great Court Run—to circle the courtyard in the time it takes for the clock to strike 12, beginning at the first chime. In addition to winning national running contests, Abrahams becomes involved with a Gilbert and Sullivan company and falls in love with a soprano, Sybil (Alice Krige). In Scotland, Eric Liddell (Ian Charleson), the son of Scottish missionaries, also engages in running competitions. Though his sister, Jennie (Cheryl Campbell), fears that running will distract him from missionary activity, Liddell feels that his victories glorify God. Eventually, Abrahams and Liddell meet in a British open race, and Liddell wins. The driven Abrahams is crushed at his defeat, but noted trainer Sam Mussabini (Ian Holm), offers to take him on, telling him that he can teach him to run faster than Liddell. The Cambridge college masters (Sir John Gielgud and Lindsay Anderson) think accepting professional coaching is ungentlemanly, but Abrahams sees their objections as anti-Semitic and class-based in nature.
Liddell, Abrahams, and the Cambridge runners Lord Andrew Lindsay (Nigel Havers), Aubrey Montague (Nicholas Farrell), and Henry Stallard (Daniel Gerroll) are chosen for the British Olympic team. As they depart for Paris, Liddell learns that the 100-metre heat in which he was to compete is to be held on Sunday. His religious convictions will not allow him to compete on the Sabbath, and he resists the arguments made by the Prince of Wales (David Yelland) and the British Olympic Committee. However, Lindsay offers to yield his place in the 400-metre race, scheduled for the following Thursday, to Liddell, and he accepts. At the Games, American runner Charles Paddock (Dennis Christopher) easily outpaces Abrahams to win the 200-metre race, but Abrahams is triumphant in the 100-metre contest, winning the gold medal. Liddell is not expected to do well at the 400-metre distance, but he nonetheless goes on to take gold. After the team returns home, Abrahams reunites with Sybil, and Liddell takes up missionary work in China.
Chariots of Fire was director Hugh Hudson’s first feature film. The soundtrack, by Vangelis, became iconic, being used as theme music for sporting events as well as in countless films, TV shows, and commercials.