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Great Olympians: Chris Brasher

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Chris Brasher.

Brasher was a maverick buccaneer of the second Elizabethan age, whose wide-ranging list of achievements extended well beyond the boundaries of the athletics track.
- Stephen Downes writing in the Independent newspaper, 1 March, 2003.

Perhaps, in the great pantheon of Olympic heroes and heroines, Chris Brasher barely seems to deserve a mention. In fact, most people will only know of him by association with an athlete most Britons will believe, erroneously, to be a greater Olympian. By those who knew him, and many who didn't, Brasher will probably be remembered with greater fondness than most. His manifold achievements and lifelong dedication to athletics mean that, by rights, he should be considered one of Britain's greatest sporting figures of all time.

Chris Brasher was born on 21 August, 1928, in Georgetown, British Guiana, and was the son of a British radio engineer. In 1935, he was sent to be educated at Rugby public school and then at Cambridge University. It was at Cambridge that Brasher's lifelong love affair with the outdoors began. He led two expeditions to the Arctic before his 22nd birthday and, according to the Independent's obituary at least, was a reserve for Lord Hunt's successful Everest expedition1. Brasher also enjoyed running, but did not seem to have the talent for greatness. As he said himself in 2000, 'I was a scrubber, somebody who has no bloody talent but just keeps scrubbing away.' Realising that he just wasn't fast enough to compete over short distances, he turned his attention to the steeplechase, and in 1952 represented Britain at the Helsinki Olympics, coming second-from-last in 11th place. It was another two years before he truly arrived on the athletics scene.

The Four-Minute Mile

In the early 1950s, a greater race than any single event was in progress. The mile had never been run in less than four minutes, but three men were edging closer to this astonishing achievement. All three, John Landy of Australia, Wes Sandee of the USA, and Roger Bannister of the UK, had run it in a shade over 4:02 by spring 1954. Bannister had single-mindedly trained for the distance for 18 months, and had used Brasher and other athletes as pacesetters. On 2 May, 1953, Bannister, Brasher and Chris Chataway lined up for in a mile race at Iffley Road, Oxford. Brasher set the pace first:

The gun fired... Brasher went into the lead and I slipped in effortlessly behind him, feeling tremendously full of running. We seemed to be going so slowly! Impatiently I shouted 'Faster!'. But Brasher kept his head and did not change the pace. I kept on worrying until I heard the first lap time, 57.5 sec... In the excitement my knowledge of pace had deserted me. 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...
- Roger Bannister, The First Four Minutes

After two laps, Chataway took over before Bannister made a final dash for the line. He crossed it clearly first, but in what time? The athletes and crowd waited for the result. Norris McWhirter, later of the Guinness Book of Records and always a man for a dramatic moment, built the tension almost unbearably in announcing the result.

Ladies and gentlemen, here is the result of event nine, the one-mile. First, number 41, RG Bannister, Amateur Athletic Association and formerly of Exeter and Merton Colleges, Oxford, with a time which is a new meeting and track record, and which - subject to ratification - will be a new English Native, British National, All-Comers, European, British Empire, and World Record. The time was 3...

The crowd roared, as McWhirter confirmed the time of 3:59.4. The mile had been run in under four minutes for the first time.

Brasher and Chataway had both played huge roles in Bannister's achievement but, in the public view, there was of course only one hero. Bannister went on to become Commonwealth and European champion in 1954 and is still considered one of Britain's greatest athletes, while Chataway took silver in the European Championships the same year. Both were eventually knighted; Bannister primarily for his future work as a neurologist and Chataway for his business and political careers.

Neither would win an Olympic medal.

The 1956 Olympics

The image of the huffing, teeth-gritted bespectacled pacemaker in front of the loping Roger Bannister was the first public memory of him.
- Brough Scott in The Sunday Telegraph, March 2003.

Brasher was inspired by Bannister's dedication, and took on a gritty single-mindedness of his own. He left his job at Mobil Oil, gave up smoking and mountaineering and left his girlfriend. His mind was set on the steeplechase at the Melbourne Olympics. In fact, after a year of hard work, he nearly didn't qualify after a loss of form, and only barely scraped through when another British Olympian, John Disley, did a little pacesetting himself in a German meet and helped Brasher squeeze into the final place in the squad.

Photographs of Brasher running the steeplechase show a real, gritty, Corinthian spirit. With his thick-rimmed round spectacles, face contorted into a kind of gasping grimace, he appears an odd contender, but the never-say-die spirit of the underdog paid off. With 300m to go, Brasher moved to the outside and sprinted for the line, crossing it a full five seconds before his nearest rival, Hungary's Sándor Rozsnyói. His elation turned to confusion, however, as Rozsnyói was announced as the winner, with Ernst Larsen of Norway second and Germany's Heinz Laufer third. Brasher had been disqualified for interfering with the run of Larsen.

The British team made their way over to the judges and launched an appeal. It was supported by Larsen, who told the judges he had not been interfered with at any point, and Laufer, who was so angry he threatened to throw his bronze medal at the judges if he was awarded it. These were innocent and sporting times. After three hours, the decision was overturned, and Brasher was awarded gold. After a night celebrating with the British press, followed by a liquid lunch the next day, Brasher was awarded gold on the podium, in his own words, 'blind drunk, totally blotto, with an asinine grin on my face, breathing gin fumes over the French member of the International Olympic Committee'.

He was five per cent ability and ninety-five per cent guts.
- Chris Chataway.

Brasher was a worthy winner, and there could be no doubting the Olympic spirit of his fellow competitors, particularly Laufer, who freely gave up his only-ever chance of a medal.

Later Life

The race was Brasher's last as an international athlete. Returning to Britain, he took a job as sports editor with the Observer newspaper, a publication he would be associated with for 35 years. During his time there, he heard of a sport the Scandinavians called 'Orientation', and decided it could be a success in Britain too. His friend John Disley had taken part in the sport a number of times, and there were occasional meetings in the UK, so while Brasher didn't exactly introduce it to the UK he certainly helped to popularise it. Disley, Brasher and Roger Bannister became the public faces of 'orienteering', as it was now known, and in 1965 Brasher became chairman of the English Orienteering Association. Many still consider him to be the father of orienteering in the UK.

He spent much of his later life returning to his roots as an avid hillwalker and mountaineer. In 1973, while walking a 180-mile route in Wales, Brasher suffered from serious blisters in his tough mountaineering boots and posted his boots home, completing his walk in a pair of trainers. Realising that there could be a market for comfortable walking boots, he designed his own just in time for the outdoor leisure boom, with his first pair going on the market in 1978, and 'Brashers' are still among the finest boots available. His design would make him a millionaire.

In 1979, Brasher and his old friend Disley took part in the New York marathon. Stories of the marathon had reached the Observer's sports desk, and Brasher realised that it could make a great story. On his return, he wrote:

To believe this story you must believe that the human race can be one joyous family, working together, laughing together, achieving the impossible. I believe it because I saw it happen. Last Sunday in one of the most trouble-stricken cities of the world, 11,532 men, women and children from 40 countries of the world, assisted by one million black, white and yellow people, Protestants and Catholics, Jews and Muslims, Buddhists and Confucians, laughed, cheered and suffered during the greatest folk festival the world has seen. And at the end of it all the story was written in their faces - faces of contentment and happiness...

Last Sunday millions of us saw a vision of the human race, happy and united, willing their fellow human beings to a pointless but wonderful victory over mental doubt and bodily frailty. I wonder whether London could stage such a festival? We have the course, a magnificent course, but do we have the heart and hospitality to welcome the world?

If New York could do it, why not London? Disley and Brasher had worked together on orienteering events for many years, with Brasher taking care of the routes and Disley the overall organisation, but for the marathon they swapped roles, realising that Brasher's more public face and influence would be more useful as the event's figurehead. It was a huge undertaking, and Brasher made regular trips to New York to see how the event there was planned and executed. With Disley, he found sponsors, worked out routes, liaised with the Greater London Council over their plans and encouraged his friends on sports desks around the country to publicise the event. After getting the go-ahead from the greater London Council the two sat down over few pints and, according to legend, sat and wrote a six-point summation of the marathon's aims:

  1. To improve the overall standard and status of British marathon running by providing a fast course and strong international competition.
  2. To show to mankind that, on occasions, the family of man can be united.
  3. To raise money for the provision of recreational facilities in London.
  4. To help London tourism.
  5. To prove that when it comes to organising major events, 'Britain is Best'.
  6. To have fun and provide some happiness and sense of achievement in a troubled world.

Two years later, they had done it, due in no small part to Brasher's endless energy and enthusiasm. The first London Marathon took place on 29 March, 1981, when 7,500 people took part. By 2007, over 30,000 runners were taking part each year, and over £200 million had been raised for charity. Not only that, but London had shown the Olympic organisers that it could put on big sporting events, and was awarded the 2012 Games.

Brasher remained a passionate conservationist, contributing heavily to campaigns to fund the purchase of land around Ben Nevis, land around Snowdon and the Petersham Meadows campaign, among others.

Brasher was finally honoured with a CBE in 1996 from John Major. It was not the first time he'd been offered the honour, famously turning down Margaret Thatcher with the words 'I couldn't take it from that bloody woman. She did nothing for British sport.'

Chris Brasher died of cancer on 27 February, 2003, at the age of 74. His favourite quote, by Robert Browning, sums up his attitude towards life:

Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp, or what's a heaven for?
1While this may have been true, Hunt notes in his book The Ascent of Everest, that the reserves were 'JH Emlyn Jones, John Jackson, Anthony Rawlinson, Hamish Nicol and, at a later stage, Jack Tucker.' Brasher's name is not mentioned. The two did take part in a British expedition to the Caucasus in 1958, and co-wrote 'The Red Snows', a 1960 account of the trip.

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