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Chris Chataway

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Last updated 17 December 2015

Sir Christopher John Chataway, PC (31 January 1931 – 19 January 2014)

Another all-time Athletics Great passes away!

So sad to hear about Chris Chataway. He was a very special guy and I have fond memories of watching him at the White City and also meeting and talking with him. I am actually in the process of moving house at present and thus we are having a major clear out. I came across a copy of the menu for the SLH 125th anniversary celebration which I attended and at which Chris was Guest of Honour. The menu bears his autograph and, no, I didn’t throw it away!

One of the photos on one of the many obituaries that have appeared is of a tussle he was having with Derek Ibbotson in a 3 mile event at the White City in 1956. I was there with my Dad and I thought Chataway would win but my Dad thought it would be Ibbo, to some extent the ‘new kid on the block’. My Dad was right and the following year during his break (he worked at Park Royal for the Radio Times) he went to the White City with some of his mates to see Ibbotson break the World Mile Record. Chataway had, of course, paced Roger Bannister to the first sub 4 minute mile but it is not well known that a year before in 1953 and at the same Iffley Road fixture, Chris had paced Bannister to a new UK record of 4.03.6 to beat Sydney Wooderson’s UK record for the Mile. That record had been set at Motspur Park in 1937 when Sydney had broken the World Record for the Mile. In April 1951, Bannister, paced by Chataway, ran 2.56.6 at Motspur Park to break the UK record for three quarters of a mile. This broke the UK record of 2.59.5 set by Sydney at Fallowfield in 1939 which was then a World Record. So Chris had worked selflessly for Bannister on quite a few occasions. Not only that but I was fairly sure that Chataway paced John Landy when Landy beat Bannister’s Mile record with 3.57.9 rounded up to 3.58.0 in Finland 6 weeks after Bannister’s ground-breaking run at Oxford. Called fount of all knowledge, Tony Weeks-Pearson, who confirmed that I was correct.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s I used to train at lunchtimes on the Battersea Park track. Lots of taxi drivers used to train there at the same time and a couple of times every week, Chataway would be running with them. They loved his company and he did theirs and I wondered about taxi drivers influencing Government decisions! He was in Parliament then so not far away. I remember saying to him that I thought he’d retired. Can’t remember his reply!

He used to come with Thames Hares and Hounds to Blackheath to run Cross Country and he said that he enjoyed his running as a Vet far more than he did his running as an International and superstar. 98 minutes for the half marathon at age 75 showed that his talent never really left him. I had hoped that he would come and join his fellow Internationals at the Sydney Wooderson Memorial Service but he was committed to go to Africa with his son to support a Water Project that he had raised a lot of money for as a memorial to his daughter-in-law who had tragically died. He was interviewed at the start of the Great North Run about this.

A lot of people were surprised that he was the first Sportsview Personality of the Year in 1954 what with Bannister breaking 4 minutes for the mile that year. But what people forget is that Bannister’s race was not televised whereas Chataway beating Kuts and breaking the 5000m World Record at White City was televised live on Sportsview. So Chris was genuinely a ‘Sportsview Personality’! And who was the starter of that 5000m race? None other than former Blackheath President, Vic Beardon.

Mike Martineau
21 January 2014

Service of Celebration for Sir Christopher Chataway

It was truly a privilege to be invited to attend the Service of Celebration for the life of Chris Chataway that was held, quite appropriately from a sporting point of view, just over the road from Lords Cricket Ground on 19th March. It was a very full house and quite a struggle to see who was there. You suspected that you knew the names of many but did not recognize the faces. I couldn’t but agree with the comment from another great Athletics fan when he said that he “thought that the Celebration of the THE RED FOX’s life was a truly fitting tribute to his life”. It was a joyous and uplifting occasion.

Dave Moorcroft was the only speaker from the World of Athletics giving a reading from Chris McDougall’s ‘Born to Run’. An address was given by Sir David Bell a long term friend, and the more personal eulogies were given by his daughter and two of his sons. These contained many affectionate and loving reminiscences. The service lasted just over the hour and included some brilliant African music reflecting the support that Chris had given for many years to ActionAid UK and in particular Vicky’s Water Project in memory of his son’s fiancée who was killed at a tragically early age. The service ended with a screening of the last two laps of his famous 5000m race against Kuts at White City in 1954 where he won and broke the World Record. This race had been started by former Blackheath President, Vic Beardon. Even though you knew the result, you were on the edge of your seat and for the first time the congregation broke into a spontaneous round of applause when Chris crossed the line as victor.

As ever you learned a lot about the man from the eulogies. An early brush with what could have been potential disaster for his political career. He had lunch with Anthony Eden just before setting off to Melbourne for the 1956 Olympics. Was reckoned to be a lucky escape for Chris. He also helped save Bletchley Park for the Nation. He had a fantastic business, political and sporting career and was a very well respected man of principle. He was regarded as a man of great integrity, with grace, style, generosity and charm. He had a great sense of humour but was not a joke teller. His daughter, Joanna, stated that he was “hilariously disorganized” and quite forgetful. Often the case of “Right Airport, wrong day or Right day, wrong Airport”. Another lovely story illustrating this was that he arrived at the start line for the 1956 Olympic 5000m final without his spikes. He was about to use a pair a couple of sizes too small when some guardian angel appeared with his spikes.

He did not live in the past and never ever had a ‘better in my day’ attitude. When asked one day whether he “used to be the runner Chris Chataway” he modestly confirmed that this was very much the case. Very interestingly, he reckoned the last two and a half years of his life, after he had been diagnosed with Cancer, were the happiest of his life. He loved the life he had lived right up to the very end. He was a great family man and there was a wonderful photo of him with his grandchildren in the Order of Service.

On the day of his famous victory over Kuts he had done a normal days work at Guinness and was going to catch a bus to the White City but in the end his boss gave him a lift. He was once asked to do a bit of spying on a trip to Moscow and make observations on something when his plane was on its approach to the Airport. Unfortunately he landed in the dark at night and so ended any possibility of a career as an 007.

He was never a great trainer and sessions never lasted more than an hour but the rumour that he left a lighted cigar at the side of the track while he trained was strenuously denied! He loved training with ‘the lads’ in Battersea Park in the 70s and 80s and was often late for meetings as a result, once arriving in a BT engineer’s van having been running with the guy who drove him there.

His sons, Adam and Matthew, covered his later Athletics career which Chris had greatly enjoyed. They wondered why they were doing this when there were so many Athletic greats in attendance. They told of a Great North Run where they clearly expected to beat their Dad who was well over 70. One was beaten by 32 minutes and the other was in a state of collapse at the end having beaten Chris by a mere handful of seconds. Brendan Foster, described as “his great friend” sadly was not there at the Service.

So who did I see who was there? The main political person was former Chancellor and Foreign Secretary, Lord Howe. Main celebrity I noticed was Tim Rice and I wondered just how they had been connected. Apart from David Moorcroft, there was David Hemery but of course the major Athletics personality was Sir Roger Bannister who was in very good form even if he does need assistance and walking sticks now. Last time I saw him was at the 50th celebration of the first 4 minute mile that I attended with Les Roberts and Pat Calnan. He was certainly in better shape then! From the 1948 and 1952 Olympics there were the likes of John Parlett, Bill Nankeville (comedian Bobby Davro’s Dad), Eric Shirley and John Disley. All of those who have worked on the London Marathon will know John Disley well and Eric, at the Wooderson Memorial Service, presented Blackheath with a photo of Sydney opening the new Finchley Clubhouse in 1949. Walker Paul Nihill was there and other locals included Mick Firth from SLH. I showed him the menu from the SLH 125th anniversary bash that I had got Chris to sign. Kevin Kelly from HHH was there, having written an excellent and thorough history of HHH, he has just penned another book that was reviewed recently in Athletics Weekly. The writer of the review, Pete Mulholland from Hercules Wimbledon was another in attendance. Was the first time I had seen John Parlett since the Wooderson Memorial Service after which he had sent me a DVD containing newsreel footage of my Dad in the 1948 Olympic 50km walk. Nice to have the chance to thank him in person.

Son, Mark, was the man greeting people on arrival at the Church and what struck you was how much he looked like his Dad, even with the same wonderful red hair.

A wonderful occasion to celebrate the life of a wonderful man. Wouldn’t have wanted to miss it!

Mike Martineau
27 March 2014

PS Forgot to mention one mistake made at Service. Claim was made that Chris and Dave Moorcroft were the only Brits to ever break the World 5000m record. Ignores the fact that Gordon 'puff-puff' Pirie set a World Record of 13.36.8 at Bergen on 19th June 1956. This improved the existing record by almost 4 seconds and was in turn broken by that man Kuts with 13.35.0 in Rome on 13th Oct 1957. This was 3 years to the day after Chris, by beating Kuts, had broken Kuts' record by 5 seconds with 13.51.6. Moorcroft came close to being the first man to beat 13 minutes with his World record of 13.00.41 set on 7th July 1982. He, like Pirie, also chose Norway to set his World record as did Aouita who shaved just one hundredth of a second from Dave's record on 22nd July 1985.

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