Athletics: Last of the great amateurs refuses to live in the past

The first winner - Sir Chris Chataway: Pioneer of the track says athletics reform is the urgent priority
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The Independent Online

This weekend Chris Chataway has been enthusiastically joining in a 50th anniversary celebration. No, not the BBC's half-century of Sports Personality of the Year awards, of which he was the first recipient in 1954. That comes tonight. Yesterday morning he was to be found churning his way across five miles of a muddy Wimbledon Common in the 50th Independent Schools Old Boys' cross-country race.

The term "old boys", he laughs, is particularly appropriate. For he is 72, though he still sets a mean pace, just as he did when he and Chris Brasher helped propel Roger Bannister into history as the world's first sub-four-minute-miler 50 years ago next May.

Sir Christopher, as he is now, is one of 16 athletes to have collected the BBC trophy, and among those he beat to become the initial winner were Sir Stanley Matthews, Lester Piggott and Peter May. Not to mention Bannister himself. It must have been some feat to eclipse the four-minute milestone of sport. Just a few weeks before the Radio Times asked viewers to send in their postcard votes, the young Oxford graduate had overcome the seemingly invincible Vladimir Kuts at the White City Stadium on 13 October, slicing five seconds off the world 5,000 metres record with BBC cameras tracking him every step of the way.

In an era when the Soviet Union, whom the machine-like Kuts both symbolised as well as represented, was the most dominant sporting nation on earth, it was a victory received with rapture close to England's latter-day World Cup successes on the football and rugby fields. "Chat-a-away, Chat-a-way" was an exhor-tation on 45,000 lips in the arena and those in front of small black-and-white screens at home as Kuts, the biggest fish in Soviet sport, was systematically reeled in.

In those days Chataway had the quiff and raffish good looks of a Hugh Grant, and his demeanour was stylishly self-effacing. Even now he admits both surprise and a little embarrassment that his achievement should have been considered worthier of the award than Bannister's, though Sir Roger, still a close friend, did receive the Sporting Record trophy as the Sportsman of the Year on the same half-hour programme beamed from the Savoy Hotel.

"I think it was because my win over Kuts came during the depths of the Cold War, when the Soviet Union was a very intimidating nation. I suppose it showed the Russians weren't unbeatable. Also, it happened just a few weeks before and, unlike the four-minute mile, was seen live at peak time on television. Actually, Roger's best race that year was his victory over John Landy in the old Empire Games in Vancouver. In those days you didn't cover something six thousand miles away but had that been seen on TV I think they would have voted for him not me."

Two years later, after competing in his second Olympics, in Melbourne, Chataway retired at the ridiculously early age of 25 to begin one of the most remarkable careers of any sports personality. It embraced television, as an investigative reporter for BBC's Panorama, and one of ITV's first newscasters; politics, as Tory Minister of Posts and Telecommunications (where he introduced commercial radio) and Industrial Development, and business as chairman of LBC, an international bank and latterly the Civil Aviation Authority. Yet it seems odd that his association with the sport should have been relatively brief. "On reflection I probably retired too soon, but I wanted to do something with the rest of my life. I had no desire to coach and actually I took no exercise at all until my early fifties, when I started to run again."

However, he was persuaded by fellow 5,000 metres man Dave Moorcroft to help resuscitate British athletics when the BAF went bust, acting as interim chairman and being instrumental in drawing up the new constitution for UK Athletics. "Dave wanted me to stay on but I didn't think I was right for that. It needed someone a bit younger. But I have the highest regard for him as chief executive and I hope all goes well with the current inquiry that is to be held into the sport.

"I do think it is very disappointing that there is so much resistance to reform, which is absolutely necessary when you have such a multiplicity of bodies within the sport. This is a serious impediment which has bedevilled athletics for 30 years and it has to put its house in order. But it is a ridiculous overreaction to say it is underachieving. There was a shortfall of medals in Paris, and there were reasons for that, but there are many sports which achieve far less."

One other aspect which bedevils modern athletics is drugs, not a word found in the sporting lexicon in Chataway's time. "No. The thought that Kuts, indeed anyone else, might have been on some sort of stimulant never crossed my mind. I'm sure there weren't any around - at least, no performance-enhancing drugs. There were performance-reducing ones, like alcohol and nicotine, which unfortunately I was a bit partial to myself!"

Old boy he may be, but Chataway's recollections are not laced with the usual rheumy-eyed yearnings for all our sporting yesterdays. He is a fan of modern athletics, and particularly of Paula Radcliffe, who he thinks is the greatest distance runner, male or female, Britain has ever produced. And he doesn't think professionalism has spoiled things. "I don't hanker after amateurism at all. Amateurism made sense at one stage when it was a question of the gentlemen wanting to have their own games and be protected from the professionals who were better at them. But even in our day it was hypocrisy, really. Utter nonsense. The brown envelopes were circulating all the time.

"I suppose people like Roger and myself were the last of the recreational athletes who did it as a serious hobby. The advantage of our era was that you could be a part-timer and still get to the top. But it was very painful because of the limited time we had for training. You can measure that by comparing how Roger or I looked finishing a really tough race with how modern athletes look. We looked absolutely shattered, and we were. To them, it is just another day's work."

Chataway, who lives in London's Maida Vale, now runs for five or 10 miles most days. "There is a little group in the village where we have a house in France who are all keen runners, one of whom is the local carpenter. Very occasionally I manage to beat him, and that's a great day for me."

Another was yesterday where he ran for his old school, Sherborne, in an event where the Chataway Cup for over-fifties is momentarily as significant as the Bannister Mile. His best time for the course is a creditable 38 minutes. "The one unbreakable rule is that I will never exert myself more than about 90 per cent."

There is another - he declines to be photographed taking part. "Old men running is not a sight to behold." But that of one young man running the race of his life 50 years ago certainly was, and because of it the BBC had their surprise first winner.