Christopher Chataway has led an extraordinary life. He will be known to many Old Shirburnians as the world record breaking runner who helped Sir Roger Bannister to break the 4 minute mile barrier in 1954 but he was also a successful broadcaster, politician, businessman and charity leader.
He was Captain of Boxing and in the Fifteen at Sherborne as well as being Head of House for Harper. He went up to Magdalen College, Oxford, after National Service, where he was President of the Oxford University Athletics Club. After leaving Oxford with an upper second in P.P.E he started with Guinness before moving to Broadcasting with the new ITN and then the BBC. He was elected for Parliament in Lewisham North in 1958, having cut his political teeth at the London County Council (later the GLC). He lost his seat in 1966 but was elected to the safe seat of Chichester in 1969 at a by-election. He served as the Minister for Posts and Telecommunications in Edward Heath’s Government, introducing commercial radio to the nation. In April 1972 he was moved to Industrial Development and announced his retirement from politics when Harold Wilson was re-elected in 1974. He went on to become Managing director of Orion Bank (subsequently purchased by Royal Bank of Canada) and remained there until he was nearly 60. He held numerous non-executive directorships including several important charitable posts. He was the first Chairman of Groundwork, the environmental charity, and was Treasurer and then Chairman of ActionAid. He was appointed as Chairman of the Civil Aviation Authority in 1991 and was knighted for services to aviation in 1995.
He celebrated his 80th birthday in 2011 and, having got to know him slightly through the OS Cross Country, I went to interview him at his ground floor flat in London, where he lives with his delightful wife, Carola.
Angus What is your first memory of competitive running?
Chris It must have been when I was 11 or 12, at prep school, running a couple of miles in the woods. I thought ‘I’m enjoying this’.
Angus Did you run at Sherborne?
Chris No, there was no athletics or cross country as such in those days but I did win the under 16 half mile in a school record of 2 minutes 14 seconds. Before I left I entered myself for the Public Schools Sports at the White City and came third in the mile. I am afraid I cannot remember the time.
Angus Which runners did you most admire when you were young?
Chris At school I had really been more interested in boxing so did not start following the Athletics press seriously until after school when I ran a lot in the Gunners, winning the Combined Services Mile. I suppose the most famous runners of that period were Sydney Wooderson (world record holder for the Mile) and Jack Lovelock.
Angus When you were at Oxford what sort of training did you do?
Chris We were pretty slack and a bit arrogant actually. We were told that we would get stale and exhausted if we trained too much so we didn’t. I ran 3 or 4 times per week and was still smoking and drinking like other young men at the time. Truthfully, it was considered a bit ‘off’ to appear to be making too much of an effort. Effortless superiority was what mattered publicly. Behind the scenes, of course, we were fiendishly competitive! Racing under that regime was torture. We gave everything in every race and were completely exhausted at the end. Today world class runners hardly seem to be out of breath at the end of a race! We were undoubtedly undertrained.
Angus When you, Chris Brasher and Roger Bannister were training for your attempt on the world mile record in ’53 and early ’54 weren’t you given a lot of help by the legendary coach Franz Stampfl?
Chris Well, up to a point. We had already started doing much more interval training and taking it all much more seriously after I had finished fifth in the Helsinki Olympic Games 5000 metres [after hitting the curb and falling on the last bend] and Roger had been beaten in the 1500 metres by the unknown Belgian Josy Barthel. Roger, in particular, faced a lot of criticism in the press. One headline ran ‘No – Roger wasn’t tough enough’. What Franz gave us was more psychological than technical. He made us believe we could do it.
Angus What do you think makes a great runner?
Chris You have to have the right genes first of all but after that it is equal amounts of mental strength and really good, long term training.
Angus Was your father a runner?
Chris Not that I am aware. He was thrilled though with my success but sadly died from heart disease in 1953, before my best period.
Angus Why was four minutes such a barrier in the post war period? Great athletes like the American Wes Santee and the Australian John Landy came so close to breaking it in the year before Roger did but just couldn’t quite make it.
Chris I think you are looking at history with the benefit of hindsight. World class athletes came from a much smaller pool then – in particular there were no African runners – and the four minute mile, after the rigours and anguish of World War 2, did not really impinge on the national consciousness. Yes, followers of Athletics were keen to get there but we were a limited bunch.
Angus Why is it that runners today run so fast?
Chris Altitude and genetics. Most of today’s top class middle and long distance runners are from Africa. 18 of the 20 most recent top class marathons have been won by Kenyons from the Rift Valley!
Angus There are some notable exceptions.
Angus Probably your most famous victory was against the Russian Vladmir Kuts at the White City in October 1954 when you set a new world record for the 5000 metres of 13 minutes 51.6 seconds. He thrashed you a few weeks earlier at the European Championships. What happened?
Chris At the Europeans I was concentrating on Emil Zatopek; in the 1952 Olympics he had won gold in the 5000 metres, the 10,000 metres and the Marathon, a quite extraordinary feat. We were having our private duel and this unknown Russian shot past us. We let him go thinking he would exhaust himself but he just kept going and beat me by 12 seconds. At the White City he went out fast and I tracked him all the way, just getting past him at the end. He didn’t run an even pace and would suddenly accelerate and sprint down the straights. I can honestly say it was the hardest and most agonizing race of my life. Bizarrely, the AAA didn’t ask me to race until a couple of weeks before the date so I had been holidaying after a hard summer season. The rest may have helped as I was pretty fit.
Angus You stopped running after the Melbourne Olympics in 1956. Why?
Chris Well, I had broken a couple of world records (5000 metres and 3 miles), I had run a mile under four minutes, I had won quite a few championship records and I wanted to do other things which I perceived as being more serious. Athletics in those days was not an occupation, it was a hobby.
Angus Lastly Chris, on running, what brought you back into the sport in your fifties?
Chris I had got married again and our second son had just been born. Carola told me that if I wanted to see him grow up I had better give up the cigarettes and get fit. Running recreationally at Thames Hare and Hounds helped on both counts. I enjoyed running for the Old Shirburnians, you and I had some fun contests, and running against my sons in the Great North Run, the furthest I had ever run, in my seventies was very satisfying. None of the agony of racing in my youth.
Angus What took you into politics?
Chris I had read P.P.E at Oxford and I had been much moved by Churchill’s great speeches during the War. I, reputedly, have a low threshold of boredom and after Guinness and early broadcasting, where I used to get invited to ‘think tanks’ like the Brains Trust, it seemed a natural thing to do.
Angus Did you ever meet Sir Winston?
Chris Yes. Us young M.P’s were deputed to go and talk to the great old man when he was in the tea room at the House of Commons. One day, when Julian Critchley and I were sitting with him, he started to tell us about his famous escape from a Boer POW camp. Absolutely magical.
Angus Did you ever really dislike anyone in politics?
Chris Not really. I had no respect for Harold Wilson, leader of the Labour Party. The most disgusting thing I ever heard was Enoch Powell’s Rivers of Blood speech. It was quite revolting and Ted Heath was quite right to sack him immediately from the front bench. This showed some courage because Enoch was an important member of the Party and much respected intellectually.
Angus Did you enjoy being a minister under Ted Heath?
Chris Very much. One really felt one was able to make a difference. Ted was very able. I particularly remember having dinner with him and a collection of top civil servants and academics on a trip to India and he held his own in discussing all the intricate details of Indian government policy. Very impressive. I think he has been underrated.
Angus What do you think were your most important achievements as a Minister?
Chris Setting up commercial local radio; freeing the BBC from red tape – did you know that there was no television in those days between 6 and 7 because children were meant to be doing their homework; and helping to encourage the creation of an industry on shore to supply the new development of North Sea oil and gas.
Angus You were a supporter of Comprehensive education I believe. Do you think we were right to abolish the 11+ and most of the Grammar schools.
Chris I do and I am glad that at last all the political parties have given up on the 11 plus. A small minority of clever children got a privileged education and the rest were consigned to the dustbin. In the comprehensives the clever ones still rose to the top. Eleven is just too early to make that sort of life shaping decision.. Incidentally, I think Michael Gove is doing a terrific job.
Angus Do you have a view of the current crisis in Europe?
Chris I am for a united Europe. The alternative is a world in which the major decisions are left to the US, China, India and perhaps Japan and Brazil. I should be sorry to see England marginalised and just carping from the sidelines.
Angus What, amongst your many achievements would you most like to be remembered for Chris?
Chris Two things: raising $600 million dollars in today’s money for World Refugee Year in 1960 with Tim Raison [Chris was awarded the prestigious Nansen Medal, now the Nansen Refugee award given to individuals and organisations for outstanding services to the cause of refugees]; and my time at ActionAid where we took it from being a small charity to one with a turnover of over £100 million.
Angus Do you have a message for younger Shirburnians?
Chris Yes. Go to university if you can and work hard whilst you’re there. It is so hard to get started in life now and with a good degree from a good university it is easier. After the struggle of ‘A’ levels it is easy to do very little at university for a year or two. I wasted great opportunities and I know many young people do the same today.
Angus Thank you very much, and belated congratulations on your eightieth birthday.