At a chosen moment this morning, just before the first of the seven chimes of Big Ben sends the field for the 47th London to Brighton run down the gruelling road to the south coast, Danny de Chaumont will return his prize to its rightful owners. He will then line up for the start and over the next six hours - and 55 miles - try to win it back for real. "That would bury the hatchet forever," he says.
The record books will tell you that Terry Tullett won the London to Brighton road race in 1986. The true story was very different. At the time, de Chaumont was 26 and a highly talented ultra-distance runner in a country which has dominated the sport for much of the last 30 years. His hero was Bruce Fordyce, 10 times winner of the legendary Comrades race in Natal, three times the London-Brighton champion. De Chaumont wanted to maintain the tradition. Ironically, the 1985 race had been won by Hoseah Tjale, a black South African, but an international ban on South African athletes had begun to bite in the mid-Eighties and, on his entry form, de Chaumont was forced to hide his nationality and falsify two qualifying times from the Stockholm and Rotterdam marathons. Under "nationality", he wrote French, the language of his Mauritian-born parents and the natural origin of his surname, if not his broad Durban accent.
So, as Danny de Chaumont (unattached) from France he lined up at Big Ben, hoping to finish in the top five and earn a footwear contract back home without attracting too much unwanted publicity. But his competitive instinct outweighed his common sense. After going the wrong way early in the race, he led for 40 miles only to be overtaken by Tullett at the bottom of the killer final climb to Ditchling Beacon.
"I was just about ready to give up," he recalled. "I'm not normally a front runner because I hate being pressurised by the other guys behind. My lead had been cut to nothing. I was overtaken by Terry and another guy. But I heard a few shouts from my supporters, who had to keep pretty quiet through the race, and I got a second wind. By the top of the Beacon I had caught Terry. 'What the hell are you doing here', he said. But I could see he was tiring."
By the finish, the unknown "Frenchman" led by just over a minute, breasting the tape in a time of 5hr 51min 57sec. Celebrations followed and a BBC interview, in which de Chaumont explained that his telltale clipped tones were a result of years working in Zimbabwe. Had they asked him for a word or two of French, the game might have been up there and then. But only slowly did the truth emerge. De Chaumont was branded an impostor, a liar and a cheat. RRC officials demanded their trophy back and Tullett was declared the reluctant winner. De Chaumont returned home disgraced in the eyes of international athletics, but a hero to his native South Africans.
"At the time, I felt no guilt whatsover. I had just wanted to run for the love of running, not for any other reason, and I had won. Inside me, I was very excited, but I couldn't let it show too much. Had I known it was going to cause such a stir and upset so many people, I would never have done it. I was 26 and I didn't feel I was doing anything wrong." He did not give his trophy back, but something stopped him from putting his name on it. He gave it to his mother, consigned the controversy to his scrapbook of cuttings and resumed his running.
"I came close to putting my name there, but I knew in the back of my mind that I wanted to come back." A virus forced him to stop running for two years. "Then age catches up with you." A creditable showing in the Comrades 55-mile race in Durban earlier this year and the offer of sponsorship from Adidas finally confirmed what his conscience, his friends, family and his long-time training partner Clyde Marwick, who is also in today's 120-strong field, had been telling him all along. "He's a very open, honest, type of guy," Marwick said. "And the way all the controversy came out he felt was a bit of a black mark against his name. So I said: 'Come on, let's do it'." The entry form was exactly the same as 11 years before.
On Friday morning, de Chaumont arrived back in London, carrying the battered two-foot high replica trophy and hoping the organisers will accept his belated apologies for its absence.
He is still not sure what reception he will get from the committee, some of whom deprived him of victory 11 years ago. "There'll be a lump in my throat on the startline and whatever happens when I cross the finishing line, I'll have won because I've not had to falsify anything, not had to hide away. There'll be mates on the road able to wave the new South African flag. Everything's changed. I've come back and won or lost legally and that will be a great feeling." This morning, 11 years on, when Big Ben chimes seven and the race begins, de Chaumont will finally be able to stop running.Reuse content