Obituary: Sir Christopher John ‘Chris’ Chataway

Chris Chataway, right, winning the 3,000m at Wealdstone in 1956. Picture: Getty
Chris Chataway, right, winning the 3,000m at Wealdstone in 1956. Picture: Getty
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Born: 31 January, 1931, in London. Died: 19 January, 2014, in London, aged 82

THE death of Chris Chataway after a long and courageous battle against cancer had been expected by his family and many friends, but came as a shock to the wider public.

The latter will know him mainly for two things: for his involvement in one of the greatest feats in British athletic history, when he and his lifelong friend, the future London marathon founder Chris Brasher, ran as pacemakers to assist 25-year-old medical student Roger Bannister break the four-minute mark for the mile at the Iffley Road track in Oxford on 6 May, 1954; and for being the first BBC Sports Personality of the Year in the same year.

Chataway beat Bannister and showjumper Pat Smythe to the award largely due to the BBC’s televising on 13 October, 1954, the best race of his running career, when he beat the great Russian athlete Vladimir Kuts over 5,000 metres at White City, breaking the world record in doing so. It was broadcast on the new Eurovision network and ten million people watched his classic come-from-behind victory, hence his Sports Personality win in a postal vote.

It was an annus mirabilis for Chataway, who also won the Commonwealth (Empire) Games Gold Medal for the Three Miles event at Vancouver.

Quadruple Olympic gold medallist Emil Zatopek had not been beaten for six years at any distance, and Chataway was determined to do so at that year’s European Championships in Berne, Switzerland, but he and the Czech did not reckon on Kuts, who shot into the lead and was still 70m clear in the final straight. Chataway did finish second, beating Zatopek into third so that he was always able to claim that he once did finish in front of the runner he rated the best in the world.

Though he had started his working life and no longer enjoyed the freedom to train that studenthood gave, Chataway continued running and set a world record for the Three Miles in 1955, and also broke the four-minute mile barrier himself. But he could only finish 11th in the 5,000m at the 1956 Olympic Games in Melbourne and never competed at high level again, saying that running had only ever been a hobby to him. It remained a hobby until shortly before his death, and he was still setting age-group records in half-marathons.

Yet there was much more to Chataway’s life than athletics. In fact, he had multiple careers. Born in Chelsea to a father who had been an aviator in his early life, Chataway spent some of his childhood in the Sudan, where his father was in political service.

Educated at Sherborne School, Chataway’s running prowess was not immediately apparent until he finished third in the public school championships in 1948. A mere four years later, he would be in the Olympic 5,000m final in Helsinki, in which he finished fifth – despite falling on the final bend.

He did his National Service in the Royal Artillery, and spent a great deal of time in service athletics – it was reported that his commanding officer had a running track built for Chataway, who rewarded him by winning the Combined Services Mile championship.

It was while studying philosophy, politics and economics at Magdalen College, Oxford, that he met up with Bannister and Brasher and they took turns to lower various records at different distances.

On leaving university, Chataway joined the Guinness brewing company in 1953, the year his father died of heart disease, and was instrumental in bringing about the eponymous Book of Records in 1955 as he recommended Norris and Ross McWhirter, the twins he had known as sprinters at Oxford, for the job of compiling it.

His interest in politics and current affairs won out over the Black Stuff, as he left Guinness to join the fledgling Independent Television News in 1955. Along with Robin Day, he was ITN’s first newsreader in October that year.

The following year Chataway joined the BBC as a current affairs commentator, then moved to the Panorama team for four years. But Conservative politics always called him, and in 1958 he was elected to London County Council.

The following year, at the age of 28, he won the Lewisham North constituency. While still writing on athletics, he made good progress in Harold Macmillan’s government, becoming Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Education. He stayed in government under Alec Douglas-Home, and notably co-sponsored the bill to legalise homosexuality in 1965, but lost his seat in the Labour landslide in 1966.

He went back to the BBC, but curtailed his appearances when he became leader of the Inner London Education Authority, a post that allowed him to push his view that schooling should not be based on the 11-plus exam. He was also an Alderman of Greater London Council at that time.

Chataway won the safe Chichester seat in a by-election in 1969 and the following year in the Heath government, he was made minister for posts and telecommunications, in which role he was instrumental in bringing in commercial local radio.

Becoming minister for industrial development, his main involvement with Scotland was with the efforts to save Upper Clyde Shipbuilders, while he also played a part in the Chrysler takeover of Rootes with its factory at Linwood.

Chataway was very much a “One Nation” Tory. He is on record as saying that Enoch Powell’s infamous “Rivers of Blood” speech was “the most disgusting thing I ever heard”. A loyal minister to Ted Heath, he supported Britain’s entry into Europe, and having been touted for top office, it was a surprise when he announced that he would be leaving parliament in 1974.

His next career in business soon flourished. He became director of the Orion Royal Bank and was then appointed to a number of boards, and also chairing LBC, the London radio news station, from 1983 to 1991.

That year he became chairman of the Civil Aviation Authority, in which role he was knighted in 1995. He also devoted much of his spare time to charity and sports, being at one time or other president of the Commonwealth Games Council for England and president of the ActionAid charity, which he helped build into the global force that it is now.

In 1959, he married television producer Anna Lett. They had two sons and a daughter before divorcing in 1975. The following year, Chataway married Carola Walker, by whom he had two more sons. She survives him, as does his first wife, and so do his children Mark, Matthew, Adam, Charles, Ben and Joanna and his grandchildren. His stepson is the Conservative MP Charles Walker.

Chataway was diagnosed with cancer in 2011 and though he fought the disease, latterly he was cared for in a hospice. His death just 12 days short of his 83rd birthday has deprived him of the chance of attending the festivities which will surely mark the 60th anniversary of Bannister’s four-minute mile in May. Sir Roger is the only survivor of the trio, Brasher having died in 2003, and Bannister, as he always does, will give great credit to Brasher and Chataway, neither of whom were “also rans” in athletics or life.