Sunday 19 November 2017

Sir Chris Chataway

The record-breaking athlete believed that what counted was the courage to confront pain, writes Ulick O'Connor

Chris Chataway
Chris Chataway

Ulick O'Connor

CHRIS Chataway, who died last week, came into the public eye with huge success in broadcasting when he appeared as the first news reader on the BBC programme Panorama.

Later he would enter politics and with the return of a Conservative government in 1970, he was appointed by Edward Heath as Minister for Posts and Telecommunications. After a reshuffle in April 1972, he became Minister for Industrial Development.

The second part of his life was spent largely in the financial world where he had considerable success, devoting, however, much of his time to social problems. He became a Privy Councillor and in 1995 he received a knighthood.

I met Chris Chataway during the Triangular International Tournament (England, Ireland and Scotland) in Dunoon, Scotland. I helped to persuade him to come to Ireland to run at a sports meeting sponsored by the famous Billy Morton of Clonliffe Harriers held in Co Dublin in which he competed along with Chris Brasher, later Olympic steeplechase champion.

It was a rough grass track, muddied by the rain and I was struck at the time how there was no complaint from either of the runners who simply ploughed through the mud past the runners on handicap who were out in front of them.

He was very much an individual athlete who made his own rules for training. When I went to see him in London, he would often be in his dressing gown at 11am in the morning with a cigarette in his hand. A glass of gin might follow, Chataway remarking that what counted in athletics was the courage to confront pain. One of his last races was in the Grand London Race in which he ran when he was almost 80.

In sport, his name is always associated with his two friends, Roger Bannister and Chris Brasher. When Bannister became the first man in the world to break four minutes in the mile, the only other competitors on the track with him were Chataway and Brasher. The three had come up under a remarkable coach with whom they had marked out a race plan. They didn't want anyone else on the track to upset it. The coach was Franz Stampfl, a striking Austrian who had come to London and who would leave his mark on the athletic world. Stampfl's theory was that if you drew on your imaginative resources, you could overcome mere physical limitations to reach a new peak. When Bannister crossed the line to break the four minute record, he was so exhausted he simply fell into Stampfl's arms.

Later there was an unpleasant period when Bannister was reluctant to agree that Stampfl was his coach until the two Chris's got their act together and pressed Roger to concede what they knew. The two Chris's themselves constantly proclaimed their dependence on Stampfl in achieving their records.

Chataway maintained that his breaking of the world record in the 5,000m against the Russian Vladimir Kuts is a clear example of what Stampfl's coaching could achieve. His own description of the race brought this point out. Kuts had used an extraordinary tactic in breaking away from Chataway at the start of the race and running full speed for 100 yards. As soon as Chataway reached him, Kuts was off again. Chris told me once that at this stage he thought his chest would burst as he knew he had to stick with Kuts or the race was lost. But he recalled Stampfl's principle of running against the pain barrier and stayed just ahead till he broke the tape. (At a coaching session Franz Stampfl once told me jokingly that I should read St John of the Cross to improve my pole vaulting, as the saint was able to levitate himself to over 15ft above the ground "without any pole". Like most Stampfl remarks, it wasn't meant just as a joke.)

Though he had broken a world record Chris Chataway did so in a period in which sport was strictly amateur. Nevertheless, while he used sport as a recreation, he achieved results which rival those of professionals today. He used to say: "Running was a very serious recreation to be sure – we worked hard at it but we had other work as well ... I sometimes think that running, which was a sort of tormentor in my youth, has returned to be a friendly codger in my old age."

Chris Chataway was the model of an English sportsman, one who adorned athletics, and brought into it something of the hero. Today, when sport has become contaminated with drug-taking and other illegal activity, his memory can be a shining beacon.

Ulick O'Connor was an Irish pole vault champion and record holder

Irish Independent

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