The marathon man profile: Chris Brasher

Norman Fox studies the determined style of the man who put thousands on the streets of London
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The Independent Online
LIKE a lot of seemingly daft ideas, it started over a pint. Back in the Seventies at the Dysart Arms in south-west London, some members of Ranelagh Harriers were half-listening as Chris Brasher, Olympic steeplechase champion, TV personality, mountaineer and compelling eccentric, puffed his pipe and steered the conversation towards the marathon. There was nothing unusual about club athletes talking about the marathon except that Brasher had always dismissed it as an event "watched by four cows and a few children". But if Brasher had become enthusiastic, something was afoot. He never did anything by halves, not even marathons.

The group could have been taken for real ale enthusiasts, which most of them were, but Brasher was also a long-time fitness freak. The majority of people in Britain in those days would have thought it absurd even to be discussing the idea that the marathon could become a mass-participation event. That was what Brasher was suggesting. He had never been one to begrudge his friends and listeners their right to call him a dreamer. In any case, it wasn't as if others hadn't succeeded. The New York Marathon was already a huge success. That night, Brasher decided that a London Marathon had to come about, and set about creating the most successful mass-participation sports event ever seen in Britain.

In America, another equally unconventional character, Fred Lebow, had realised that the millions of American men and women already obsessed with jogging were ripe to be captivated by the historic challenge of the marathon. Brasher was not into jogging - far too undemanding - and with another former steeplechase champion, John Disley, maintained his fitness and satisfied his love of the great outdoors by going mountaineering. He had also been involved in establishing orienteering, which almost fulfilled his competitive appetite. But the marathon was something else. Brasher and Disley decided they had to experience one for themselves.

In 1979 they went to New York and took part in what had become a mix of fun-run and competitive race. By then, Brasher, born in British Guiana, the son of an electrical engineer with the Colonnial Office, had turned himself into a successful journalist. He had been sports editor of the Observer from 1957 to 1961 and then, like another member of Roger Bannister's four-minute mile team, Chris Chataway, moved into television to become a reporter with the Tonight programme, followed by a spell as head of the BBC general features unit from 1969 to 1972, whereupon he resumed his writing career. Anyone who knew him then, indeed anyone who has worked with him since, would say he was not the most accommodating of colleagues. His enthusiasm has to be shared. He has never found it easy to understand people who stand in his way, his determination is formidable.

That stubbornness was probably more important to his winning the 1956 Olympic title than any natural talent. It was his gritty ability to maintain a steady pace that two years before had assisted Bannister to his sub- four-minute mile at Oxford. His fitness had always been beyond dispute but "I squeezed out what little talent I possessed". It was only because he accepted that as a middle-distance runner he would probably never achieve greatness that he switched to the steeplechase in which in 1956 in Melbourne he won his gold medal, as second string to his London Marathon co-founder Disley. A long delay while the judges decided whether or not he had impeded another runner was one of British athletics' most compelling dramas. In the end, they gave him the gold, not knowing that years later he would dismiss it as of less importance than organising the first London Marathon.

By the time Brasher and Disley had begun to work on the idea, the seed bed had already been sown with a profusion of fun runs. It was obvious to them that many people whose fitness had improved through jogging would find the marathon irresistible. When he returned from New York, inspired, he wrote in the Observer: "To believe this story, you must believe that the human race can be one joyous family, working together, laughing together, achieving the impossible. I believe it because I saw it happen. Last Sunday, in one of the most violent, trouble-stricken cities in the world, 11,532 men, women and children from 40 countries of the world, assisted by 2.5 million black, white and yellow people, Protestants and Catholics, Jews and Muslims, Buddhists and Confucians, laughed, cheered and suffered during the greatest folk festival the world has seen." He asked whether London had the "heart and hospitality" to welcome the world. His evangelism fell on deaf ears. So he returned to America and took advice on the art of persuasion.

For months afterwards, he campaigned wherever anyone would listen. Gradually, the police came round to the idea that whole sections of London could be cordoned off for one Sunday a year. The Greater London Council supported the project and the £50,000 needed to get it on the road was offered by the first sponsors, Gillette. A far cry from this year's budget of about £1m.

"I have to confess," he said last week, "the problems in organising that first race were not as great as they are today. These days there are so many differrent people you have to deal with. Police forces, park authorites and the rest, all with different budgets. Bureaucracy running riot. It's never been more difficult."

The first London Marathon was held in March 1981. When announcing it a few months earlier, Brasher said that it was possible that 4,000 would enter (the previous record for any British marathon was a little over 700). More than 21,000 asked for entries, of which 7,055 were allowed to set off from Greenwich Park. The route had been carefully planned to guarantee worldwide television interest, and was a huge success. None of the 6,418 finishers complained that they ran 30 metres too far, a fact only discovered when the course was later re-measured.

Dick Beardsley, of the United States, and Inge Simonsen, of Norway, entered into the spirit of the day by finishing side-by-side in 2hr 11min 48sec, the fastest time ever recorded in England. Brasher showed what a real ale-loving but fairly fit 52-year-old could achieve by finishing in less than three hours. Madge Marples, aged 64, had a break for a cup of tea halfway round, finished with a regal wave and became a national celebrity. Beardsley remarked that everyone who finished was a winner.

Inevitably, the instant popularity of the London Marathon led to it also becoming one of the most competitive in the world. Prize money, appearance money, advertising, sponsorship, television deals, and block booking of entries by charities and companies have all brought Brasher problems. These days, he acts as chairman of London Marathon Ltd, overcoming the problems with his same sometimes abrasive, persuasive attitude to anyone who questions the event's integrity or thinks twice about giving it support. Accusations were made that he and Disley were using the race to promote their commercial interests in a brand of running shoe. "The suggestions hurt me very much," he said. Soon, this £750,000 legal battle should end, with Brasher, of course, confident of success against his detractors.

He has also had to deal with accusations that a large part of the event has been turned over to big business, with a "Golden Bond" scheme allowing charities guaranteed places. But Brasher insists that he is defending the original concept of mass individual fund-raising. "Some of the big charities seem to think they have all sorts of rights, but what they forget is that we, the London Marathon, are also a charity. The big charities have all these overheads but the individual runners have none. All the money they collect goes to their own choice of charity." So has his effort been worthwhile? He said someone came up to him recently and said: "You haven't met me but I want to tell you about the three happiest days of my life: one was my wedding day, the second the birth of our child and the third was finishing the London Marathon." "That," said its founder, "is what the London Marathon is all about."

Why is it that someone who began an event that grew to become what today will be a multi-million- pound provider of funds for so many good causes, has two medals for finishing his own event, an Olympic gold, but nothing in recognition of his achievements? He confesses that he was offered "a gong" but it was by Margaret Thatcher. "Couldn't take it from that bloody woman," he said. "She did nothing for British sport."