Recognition at last for the first British athlete to strike Olympic gold

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The Independent Online

Four years ago Chris Bennett found himself probing an overgrown graveyard in a Dorset village armed with little more than shears and a fork. A resounding clunk soon confirmed his diligence had paid off: he had located the gravestone of his grandfather Charles Bennett.

Four years ago Chris Bennett found himself probing an overgrown graveyard in a Dorset village armed with little more than shears and a fork. A resounding clunk soon confirmed his diligence had paid off: he had located the gravestone of his grandfather Charles Bennett.

While few may recognise the name, it was Bennett who brought a new level of sporting glory to the nation as the first British athlete to triumph in the Olympic Games. At the age of 29 he claimed a gold medal in the 1900 Paris Olympics with a record-breaking 1,500m run.

Yesterday, as the nation's eyes were focused on Britain's 21st century athletes, it was announced that Bennett was to be honoured with a memorial in the form of a village green.

Villagers had long walked past, or even over, the patch of overgrown grass at St Andrew's churchyard in Kinson, north of Bournemouth. His grandson Mr Bennett, 60, says: "We had always known we had an Olympic runner in the family but never really boasted about it."

In 2000, Mr Bennett studied maps provided by the churchwarden and started digging. "I had some grass shears and a fork. I stuck the fork into the ground and suddenly there was a clunk." An inch below the surface he discovered three sections of a square. On one end it read: "In loving memory of Charles Bennett who died 18th Dec 1948, age 78 years." Beneath it said: "Until the day break."

Last week, as today's athletes gathered in Athens, preparing for greater glory and sponsorship deals, Mr Bennett went back to make sure his grandfather's grave was in good condition. In two weeks, the 190 inhabitants of Shapwick, the Dorset village in which the sportsman was born, will honour him with a new village green, having raised £50,000. The Charles Bennett Memorial Field has been cleared and, this week, frames were being put up for the new children's play area.

Charles Bennett, 29, was not expected to win the race in Paris. Although he was the Amateur Athletic Association titleholder, his time of 4 minutes 28.2 seconds was far from exceptional. But his confidence was boosted when the hot favourite, John Cregan from the United States, withdrew because the race was on a Sunday.

The 1900 Olympics, overshadowed by the World Exhibition in Paris, was a chaotic affair. The 1,066 athletes from 19 countries had to deal with scheduling conflicts and poor facilities. Clad in long shorts with only the simplest of footwear to contend with the soft, uneven track at the Racing Club of France, Bennett still had a tough battle ahead to beat the Frenchman Henri Deloge. In an amazing feat, the tall, slim Englishman raced the three circuits in 4min 6.2 seconds, not only surpassing Cregan's personal best by nearly 20 seconds but breaking the world record.

Although Britons had won gold in other events at the Games in 1896, the first of the modern era, Bennett was the first to win a track and field event. Bennett went on to clinch a team gold in the 5,000 metres and a silver in the steeplechase. Upon his return to Britain, he was carried through the streets of Wimbourne in Dorset.

Today's 1,500m record, held by Hicham El Guerrouj, from Morocco, is 3 minutes 26 seconds, but more than a century ago an athlete's regime was very different. Bennett was a steam train driver on the Bournemouth to Waterloo line. Shapwick had no sports facilities and Bennett is believed to have trained with Finchley Harriers at the end of a day's work.

Stan Greenberg, an Olympic historian, said: "Because it happened so long ago, these sort of achievements are forgotten about. But when people talk about athletics, Charles Bennett's name should come to the front of their minds just the same as Stanley Matthews' name does in football."

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