News28 Feb 2003

Chris Brasher, Olympic Champion and co-founder of the London Marathon dies


Chris Brasher (© Getty Images)

Of the three principal participants in one of the greatest sporting achievements of all time, Roger Bannister’s first sub-four-minute mile at Iffley Road nearly 50 years ago, two men have subsequently been recognised with knighthoods.

Sir Roger was knighted as much for his neurosurgery as his pioneering athletics achievements. Sir Chris Chataway’s career as a politician and his further services to sport have also rightly been recognised.

But Chris Brasher, who died yesterday after a lengthy battle against pancreatic cancer, did so without a similar acknowledgement. For Brasher -- the carthorse to Bannister’s thoroughbred on that May day in 1954 -- was a maverick buccaneer of the second Elizabethan age, whose wide-ranging list of achievements extended well beyond the boundaries of the athletics track.

For as well as leading the first half of possible the most famous track race of all time, Brasher had led two expeditions to the Arctic before he was 22; as a mountaineer, he was a reserve for Edmund Hillary’s expedition that conquered Everest; he won the Olympic gold medal at 3,000 metres steeplechase in 1956; he had an award-winning career as a print and television journalist; he developed a new sport in Britain; he worked tirelessly for nature conservation, spending tens of thousands of his own money to preserve Britain’s diminishing wildernesses; and for good measure, through his various business interests, he made himself a millionaire several times over.

But Brasher’s later, greatest accomplishment was to get the London Marathon staged in 1981. “Only Chris Brasher could have knocked the head together to achieve that,” his successor as race director, David Bedford, said yesterday.

Brasher’s London Marathon triggered the fitness culture in Britain and altered forever the way we look after our bodies, it has inspired the raising of millions of pounds for charities and, above all, simply helps to make the British capital a better, more smiling place on at least one day each year.

Christopher William Brasher was born, the son of a Colonial Office official, in British Guiana[CORR] on August 21, 1928. After returning to England aged seven, Brasher was then educated at Rugby and at St John’s, Cambridge. He acquired a taste for the outdoor life, enjoying walks and rock climbing which led him to the fringes of fame with the Everest expedition.

Despite acquiring a taste for other things which were not quite so athletic -- tobacco and beer -- Brasher also began to show some talent as a runner while at college. By training with the famed Austrian coach, Franz Stampfl, Brasher became friends with Bannister and Chataway. In the winter of 1953-54, as they trained together around the odd-distanced little track at Chelsea Barracks, the three young men plotted an attack on the Holy Grail of athletics, the four-minute-mile -- four quarter-miles each run at 60sec or better.

They knew they were in a race of another sort, to be the first to the achievement, since the talented Australian runner, John Landy, was planning an assault on the record, too.

So early in the season, they agreed on an attempt at a Oxford University v Amateur Athletic Association meeting. Chataway, as the strong 5,000-metre man (he would later set a world record at that distance), was to be given the tough job of maintaining the pace through the difficult penultimate lap, providing Bannister with the launch pad for his trademark burst on the last lap. But the foundation of a successful record attempt was Brasher’s job on the first two laps.

Bannister, who visited his old friend at his Berkshire home earlier this week for the final time, said Brasher's pacemaking was crucial. “We seemed to be going so slowly. Impatiently I shouted ‘faster!’,” Bannister recalled in his book The First Four Minutes.

“But Brasher kept his head and did not change the pace. Brasher could have run the first quarter in 55 seconds without my realising it, because I felt so full of running, but I should have had to pay for it later. Instead, he made success possible.” Brasher passed the half-mile mark that day in 1min 58.2sec, right on target for those famous figures of 3min 59.4sec.

It was his involvement in that record that fired Brasher’s enthusiasm, and his indefatigable drive and ambition, which saw him fix upon a goal of his own. “As an athlete I felt I was a nonentity, a fraud. Roger had been overly generous in acknowledging what Chris and I had done. My one moment of fame, and I'd achieved it riding on somebody else's back. It made me desperate to show in some other event that it was possible for me to do something.”

Unusually for the mid-1950s, strict amateur era, Brasher took time out of his job at Mobil Oil to spend almost a year doing little more than train for the 1956 Melbourne Olympic Games, where he aimed to do better in the steeplechase than the one-from-last he managed in the final in Helsinki four years before.

Brasher won the gold medal in what would become his typical style -- a bullocking run, followed by controversy, with him being first disqualified and then bearding the judges with his own appeal in which he managed to get all the other medallists, including runner-up Ernst Larsen, of Norway, to give evidence on his behalf.

He celebrated with a “liquid lunch“ with the British press pack and stood on top of the podium to collect his medal “blind drunk, totally blotto”.

Brasher had taken a precious prize that eluded his more gifted and celebrated friends, Bannister and Chataway. The Olympic final was Brasher’s last race as an international athlete, although he would run for recreation through into his 60s, and he would also compete as an international in orienteering, the Scandinavian compass sport that he introduced to Britain with his old steeplechasing and climbing mate, John Disley.

But the most important race Brasher would run was one he would come no where near to winning. At 51, Brasher took part in the 1979 New York City Marathon, when he was overwhelmed by the fun and kindness of an entire city when its roads were taken over by thousands of “citizen runners”. On his return, Brasher wrote, “Could London stage such a festival? Do we have the heart and hospitality to welcome the world?” (the inspirational cutting is still stuck to the inside of this correspondent’s first proper training diary). In true Brasher style, he made sure London rose to the challenge.

Brasher was in a position to do so because of his connections and influence with The Observer and its then editor, Donald Trelford. After returning from Melbourne in 1956, Brasher had taken up a fresh challenge as sports editor with The Observer, where he worked in various capacities for almost 35 years. In the early 1960s, he moved on to allow himself scope for other projects in television, where his gravely-voiced delivery on (British television's) "Tonight programme" and "Man Alive" belied his status as a child stammerer.

In his 60s, he embarked on further outlets for his energies, such as sailing around Britain and a coast-to-coast walk in Scotland, and he indulged in a new-found passion for national hunt horse racing, at which he enjoyed some considerable success as an owner.

Denied the knighthood he richly deserved, Brasher turned down an honour offered when Margaret Thatcher was prime minister, chiefly in protest over the unsuccessful Olympic boycott instigated in 1980 (“After nearly 50 years, my love affair with my mistress is as passionate as ever,” Brasher would write of the Olympics just before the 2000 Sydney Games), but he did ultimately accept the CBE from John Major’s administration.

In the last couple of years, Brasher suffered deteriorating health, although this rarely prevented him from enjoying his pipe and a pint with his old friends.

“Chris was gallant and brave right to the end, he had won so many battles in his life,” Sir Roger Bannister said. “We had more than 50 years of friendship, Chataway, Brasher and I, and we mourn him and grieve for his family.

“He did so much for Britain, from his incomparable Olympic gold medal to founding the London Marathon and preserving tracts of countryside. We will miss him.”

Brasher married the Wimbledon tennis quarter-finalist, Shirley Bloomer, in 1959, and he is survived by his widow and their three children, Hugh, Kate and Amanda.

Steven Downes for the IAAF

Pages related to this article