Chris Chataway: Athlete who helped Roger Bannister make sporting history and went on to serve as a respected Tory MP

 

Chris Chataway led a rich and varied life. Famous as an outstanding middle-distance runner, he was also a broadcaster in the early days of television, a Conservative minister, businessman, and successful fund raiser for charities. The variety was a consequence not so much of a growing boredom with one career as his wish to try something different.

Born in 1931, he was educated at Sherborne School, where he was an occasional runner but captained the boxing team and represented the school at rugby. Following National Service he read Politics, Philosophy and Economics at Magdalen College, Oxford. His running developed while he was at university.

Chataway competed in what was a golden age for British middle-distance running. Apart from his Oxford university friends, Roger Bannister and Chris Brasher, there was Gordon Pirie, Derek Ibbotson and Derek Johnson, all of whom broke records or won medals. The 21-year old Chataway ran in the final of the 5,000 metres at the Helsinki Olympics in 1952. Although relatively unknown he was leading into the final bend when his foot struck the kerb and he fell; he rose to finish fifth. The race was won by the triple gold medallist, Emil Zatopek of Czechoslovakia.

Chataway gained immortality by acting as a pacemaker to Bannister when he became the first man to beat four minutes for the mile, at the Iffley Road university track in Oxford in May 1954. In the same year he won the three miles at the Commonwealth Games. He had hopes of winning the European 5,000 metres at Berne in September, but while he shadowed Zatopek an unfancied Russian, Vladimir Kuts, broke away from the field. Chataway waited in vain for Kuts to slow down and finished a frustrated second.

Two weeks later Kuts and Chataway raced at a packed White City under floodlights. This turned out to be one of the most dramatic races held at the historic track. Chataway tailed the Russian for over three miles and overtook him in the final few yards to win in a new 5,000 metres world record of 13min 51.6sec. He remembered it as "the most painful 15 minutes of my life". The race so captured the public's imagination that Chataway won the first BBC Sports Personality of the Year award.

Kuts, like many East Europeans, was an army officer and virtually a full-time athlete. Chataway fitted in training around his studies, and later his job, and might cover 25 miles or so a week compared with Kuts' hundred miles. One of his few concessions, a few days before a big race, was to cut out his beer and cigarettes.

Chris Chataway would look out of place in today's races: he was a barrel-chested 11 stone and about 5ft 9in. He and the Europeans were fortunate that they were competing before the entry of runners from Ethiopia and Kenya, who now dominate middle-distance running. As a runner Chataway was blessed with great self-belief and determination and, like Bannister and Brasher, benefited from the guidance of the Austrian coach, Franz Stampfl.

After Oxford he worked for a time at Guinness and in 1955 joined the commercial broadcaster ITN, where he and a young Robin Day were its first newsreaders. The following year he joined the BBC and until 1959 was a key member of its Panorama current affairs team. He was interested in a political career and the exposure helped him. In 1958 he was elected to represent Lewisham North on the London County Council (later the GLC). He successfully fought the constituency, a marginal seat, for the 1959 general election.

The Conservative Party has been more willing than other parties to select sports stars as parliamentary candidates. Chataway preceded Ted Dexter, the England cricket captain, and Seb Coe, the Olympic gold medallist, and was probably the most successful sportsman turned politician. His liberal and internationalist outlook made him a distinctive Conservative. He spoke out against apartheid and campaigned for refugees; his efforts on behalf of the latter were so successful he was awarded the Nansen Medal in 1960, World Refugee Year. He served as junior education minister but lost his seat in the 1966 Labour landslide.

When the Conservatives won control of the Inner London Education Authority (ILEA) in 1967, the new Conservative leader Ted Heath was shocked to learn that the councillors planned to reverse the recently implemented scheme of comprehensive education for secondary schools and restore the 11+. Chataway, both available and possessing some education expertise, was brought in, made an alderman and appointed leader of the education committee. He succeeded in reaching an accommodation with the Labour government. Over 40 years later he remained a vigorous opponent of the 11+ and was latterly a supporter of Michael Gove's free schools.

Eager to return to the Commons he left the ILEA when he won the safe Chichester seat at a by-election in 1969. When Ted Heath formed a Tory government in 1970 he appointed Chataway Minister for Posts and Telecommunications; his department was responsible for introducing commercial radio and ending the BBC monopoly. Two years later he was made Industry minister. His charm and modesty made him a popular figure with fellow-MPs and voters, and some colleagues anticipated that he would soon join the Cabinet.

But when the Conservative government lost the February 1974 General Election he surprised many by announcing his retirement from his safe seat. He admired Heath and supported his policies, and his disenchantment with political life struck him when he lost his temper with a constituent who had expressed his contempt for the government. But his marriage was also foundering and was dissolved the following year.

Had he remained it is doubtful that his pro-Europe and liberal views on social issues would have recommended him to Mrs Thatcher. Although he had no interest in returning to politics, links with the Conservative Party were maintained by his stepson Charles Walker, the MP for Broxbourne, and his brother-in-law Peter Hordern, the former MP for Horsham.

Aged 43 he became managing director of Orion Bank, becoming vice chairman and remaining with it until 1988. He continued to play an important role in public life; he chaired an environmental charity, held office in the National Campaign for Electoral Reform (a number of Conservatives hankered after proportional representation in the 1970s) and was Treasurer and then Chairman of Action Aid, an overseas development charity. He was chairman of LBC (1981 to 1983) and of various athletics bodies. In 1991 he was appointed chairman of the Civil Aviation Authority and was knighted for services to the industry in 1995.

In middle age he took up running again, this time for fun, with Thames Hare and Hounds. It was a mark of his natural fitness that in his 80th year he was taking part in the Great North Run, a distance of over 13 miles, accompanied by his two sons. Chataway died after suffering from cancer.

On 3 August 1962 I asked Christopher Chataway – then one year old in Parliament but appointed weeks before as education Under-Secretary in the wake of the "Night Of the Long Knives" – a series of questions on maturity, or lack of maturity, of entrants to teacher-training colleges, during his first debate as the minister responsible, writes Tam Dalyell. At the end of the proceedings he collared me, saying he and his officials were also bothered about the maturity issue. Would I come and see him in the department? Going to his office, I congratulated him on his appointment. "Too soon for my own good," he said. "I fear they wanted me for my legs, not my political experience." He said he was sensitive to the resentment of colleagues who had laboured in the political vineyard for years and knew more about education than he did.

He then confided in me (I knew him before either of us were MPs) that he had politely asked the Prime Minister, "Are you sure that I am your best choice?" Supermac replied, "No, Chataway, I am not at all sure, but Edward Boyle [then incoming Secretary of State] asked for you, and Redmayne [Lt Col Sir Martin Redmayne, Chief Whip] thought that it would be good for the party's image." Perhaps it was his self-critical modesty which contributed to his joining the not-so-long realistic list of ex-future prime ministers.

Christopher Chataway, athlete, broadcaster, politician and businessman: born 31 January 1931; MP Lewisham North 1959–66; Chichester 1969-74; Kt. 1995; married 1959 Anna Lett (divorced 1975; two sons, one daughter), 1976 Carola Walker (two sons); died 19 January 2014.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Arts and Entertainment
a clockwork orange, stanley kubrick
film
Extras
The Tesco Hudl2: An exceptional Android tablet that's powerful, well-built and outstanding value
indybest

News
Sarah Silverman (middle) with sister Reform Rabbi Susan Silverman (right) and sister actress Laura Silverman (left) at Jerusalem's Western Wall for feminist Hanuka candle-lighting ceremony
peopleControversial comedian stages pro-equality Hanukkah lighting during a protest at Jerusalem's Wailing Wall
Sport
After another poor series in Sri Lanka, Alastair Cook claimed all players go through a lean period
cricket
Arts and Entertainment
The Bach Choir has been crowned the inaugural winner of Sky Arts’ show The Great Culture Quiz
arts + ents140-year-old choir declared winner of Sky Arts' 'The Great Culture Quiz'
Life and Style
food + drinkAuthor DBC Pierre presents his guide to the morning after
Life and Style
food + drink
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Finance Director

£65000 - £80000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Finance Director required to jo...

Recruitment Genius: Medico-Legal Assistant

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a unique opportunity fo...

Ashdown Group: (PHP / Python) - Global Media firm

£50000 per annum + 26 days holiday,pension: Ashdown Group: A highly successful...

The Jenrick Group: Quality Inspector

£27000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: A Quality Technician...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

Paul Scholes column

It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas