Are sports about winning, or about how well you play the game? Probably both, but nowadays it's a billion-dollar international enterprise whose champions often become celebrity millionaires. Victory is held up as the only virtue, and losing is seen as a character flaw.

To address these issues, Chariots of Fire, 1981 Academy Award winner, takes us back to a less commercial era. It's 1919, and World War I has just ended. The sport is running, particularly the 100-yard dash and the hurdles. British director Hugh Hudson (Greystoke: The Legend) and screenwriter Colin Welland dramatize the unique excitement of those events with stories about two of England's most honored athletes of that period, Harold Abrahams and Eric Liddell. The movie sets up these two fierce competitors as rivals in national championships and cuts back and forth between their personal stories to build suspense.

As Abrahams (Ben Cross) begins his first year at Cambridge, he often feels out of place among Britain's upper classes because he is the son of a Jewish immigrant. “This England is Christian and Anglo-Saxon,” he observes. “They guard the corridors of power.”

A genteel anti-Semitism seems as much a part of the university landscape as the stately Gothic buildings and courtyards. To prove his worth, Abrahams decides to excel in the 100-yard dash.

“I'm coming to take them on and run them off their feet,” he declares.

Liddell (Ian Charleson) is the son of evangelical Protestant missionaries from Scotland. He plans to follow in their footsteps, but before taking up his vocation, he intends to qualify for the 1924 Olympics. His sister, Jennifer (Cheryl Campbell), is afraid dedication to sport will weaken his spiritual commitment. Liddell disagrees.

“I want to compare faith to running in a race,” he declares. “It's hard and requires concentration of will.”

Only Lord Lindsay (Nigel Havers), Abraham's Cambridge classmate and an Anglican, seems to run for the pleasure of it. With aristocratic flair, he places a glass of champagne at each hurdle while training, hoping that not a drop will be spilled as he glides over the course.

Even though Abrahams is popular with his fellow students, he can be a difficult personality and a poor loser.

“I'm an addict,” he proclaims about his obsession with the sport. “If I don't win, I don't run.”

During that era athletics were considered a gentleman's occupation. Abrahams breaks one of the unwritten rules of the code by hiring a professional coach (Ian Holm). His Cambridge housemaster criticizes him. But Abrahams replies: “Yours are the archaic values of the prep-school playing field. I believe in the pursuit of excellence.”

Liddell seems a more likable person. He tries to place his competitive desires within a religious perspective.

“I believe God made me for a purpose,” he says. “He also made me fast. When I run, I feel his pleasure. To win is to honor him.”

During the Olympics, however, Liddell proves himself to be as stubborn as Abrahams. When a trial heat is scheduled on a Sunday, he refuses to run. According to his denomination's beliefs, the Sabbath is holy, and he must honor God by worship and rest. Considerable pressure is put on him to change his mind, but even a meeting with the Prince of Wales (David Yelland) can't persuade him to back down.

St. Paul compared his life's spiritual journey to an athletic event. “I have fought the good fight to the end; I have run the race to the finish; I have kept the faith” (2 Tm 4:7).

Like the apostle, Abrahams, Liddell, and even Lord Lindsay see running as a test of character, despite their different religions.

“The power to win is within,” Liddell declares, “and Jesus said, ‘Behold the Kingdom of God is within you.’”

Each runner undergoes a significant personality change that makes him a humbler and more decent person. Chariots of Fire captures both the beauty of their physical prowess and the beauty of their souls. This is competitive sports as it should be — a good example for our materialistic, narcissistic age.

Next week: Orson Welles's Citizen Kane.

Arts & Culture correspondent John Prizer writes from Los Angeles.