Sir Chris Chataway: Athlete and politician who helped Roger Bannister break the four-minute barrier for the mile and went on to serve as a government minister under Edward Heath

 

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 a number of East Europeans, was an army officer and virtually a full-time athlete, with unlimited opportunities for training. Chataway fitted in training around his studies, and later his job, and might cover only 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 the red-haired 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 and 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 Labour landslide in the 1966 general election.

When the Conservatives won control of the Inner London Education Authority (ILEA) in 1967 Ted Heath (the new Conservative leader) 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. 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. 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 PR 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 running in the Great North Run, a distance of over 13 miles, accompanied by his two sons. Chataway died after a long illness.

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.

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