Origianally published 15th May 2020
66 years ago this month, Roger Bannister became the first person to run a mile in under four minutes, crossing the line at Oxford’s Iffley road track in 3 minutes and 59.4 seconds.
Once he’d recovered enough to speak (having literally collapsed across the finish line) Bannister immediately acknowledged the crucial role that his two friends – Chris Brasher and Chris Chataway – had played in the triumph.
Both exceptional and successful runners in their own right, they acted as Bannister’s pacemakers for the race. Brasher led them off, setting the perfect pace (despite Bannister shouting at him to go faster!).
After two laps Chataway, who had been sitting just behind Bannister, accelerated to the front and took up the pace, taking Bannister with him. He maintained the perfect pace until, with 250 yards left, Bannister kicked for home and his place in history. But while the record is undeniably his, Bannister has consistently maintained that the victory and hence the place in history belongs to all three of them.
Chris Chataway died back in 2014, having crammed an astonishing number of achievements into his 82 years. He was, amongst other things, a conservative MP, ITN’s first newsreader, Chairman of the Civil Aviation Authority, Honorary Treasurer of the charity ActionAid and the President of the Commonwealth Games Council. He is best known, however, as an athlete. During a short but eventful athletics career he ran in two Olympic finals, won Commenwealth gold, held the three mile and 5,000m world records, and was BBC’s first Sports Personality of the Year*.
And yet despite all of this, he is best remembered for a race that not only did he not win, but which he had no intention of wining when he entered it.
And so it was that despite his many achievements in politics, broadcasting, business and sport, the obituaries published following Chataway’s death all identify him first and foremost as the man who helped pace Roger Bannister to the first sub-four minute mile. But am I the only one who, surrounded by societies ‘its all about the winners’ and ‘second is first loser’ message, finds it surprising that the headline act of such a remarkable man is a race in which he finished a distant second?
Now I love to compete, I love to be in the race and if we are going head to head I’m going tot go al outj to win….just ask my kids! I’m guessing Chris Chataway was no different – he just won a whole more than most! And yet the obituary writers seemed recognise something deeply significant in this winners willingness to lay down his own ambition for a while in order to help another man run his race.
Could it be that at the end of his days, we will ultimately be judged not by how well we ran our own race, but rather by how many others we helped successfully run theirs? If so, then for all his medals, records and titles, perhaps Chataways’s greatest legacy is the challenge he left us written between the lines of his obituary : “what and who are you running for?”
*Chataway won the first winner of the BBC Sports Personality of the year. That was back in 1954 – that’s right, 66 years ago, the year he helped Bannister break the four minute mile. Guess who finished second? Roger Bannister.