SJA President PATRICK COLLINS chose Chris Brasher as the recipient for his personal award at the SJA British Sports Awards 2020 and has written this wonderful tribute.
One summer evening in the 1970s, Chris Brasher sat in a Helsinki restaurant and discussed his dream. At that time it was still taking shape, but it involved something like a “People’s Event”, featuring some kind of distance race. He suggested various distances, ten miles perhaps, maybe fifteen. Or why not a marathon?
The hour was late and the company – three or four athletics writers – was convivial. But the ensuing argument was fierce. Jogging was one thing, we said, but the marathon was a terrifying event. Only supermen need apply. Novices would push themselves too hard. Few would actually finish, many would suffer, there could even be fatalities. In short, a tragic farce: did Brasher really want that on his conscience?
He grinned through our objections, ordered another bottle, and stuck to his guns. If New York could stage a marathon, why couldn’t a British city give it a go? After a while, we dropped the subject and moved on to the next argument. But our old friend could feel a campaign coming on …
In 1979, on a trip to the States, he ran the New York Marathon. On his return he wrote: “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 2.5m 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.
“I wonder whether London would stage such a festival? We have the course, a magnificent course – but do we have the heart and hospitality to welcome the world?”
Over the next 18 months – brilliantly assisted by his friend and ally John Disley – Brasher hurled himself at the project. He thumped desks, stormed in and out of meetings, barked threats and flaunted such inducements as were permitted under the rules of amateurism. And so, on the damp, grey Sunday morning of March 29, 1981, a cannon boomed across Greenwich Park, and 6,700 runners of all shapes and sizes came bounding across Blackheath. And, by their hundreds of thousands, Londoners flooded out to greet their marathon.
The doubters – and I was among them – were decisively confounded. It was a glorious success, a day brimming with joy. And as Brasher padded through the 26 miles of the race he had created, the grin never once deserted his face.
To dwell upon Brasher’s leading role in creating the London Marathon is to glide over his other achievements. In 1954, on that legendary Oxford evening, he and his close friend Chris Chataway made the pace for Roger Bannister’s four-minute mile.
Then there was his steeplechase gold medal at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics. After the race, there was a three-hour inquiry into a collision in the final stages. Brasher was cleared of blame, but the medal ceremony was delayed until the following day. He celebrated his success with the small group of British sportswriters covering the Games and, as a result of the long evening, he became: “The first athlete to mount the rostrum blind drunk, totally blotto, with an asinine grin on my face.”
There were the two Arctic expeditions, undertaken before he reached the age of 22. There were the mountains he climbed, the forests he explored as he pioneered the sport of Orienteering. There was his eminence as a conservationist, his nautical skill as a round-Britain sailor, his entrepreneurial flair in developing the Sweatshop chain and the ‘Brasher Boot’.
There were his staunch principles, vividly illustrated by his refusal to accept a knighthood from Margaret Thatcher following her attempted boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics.
There was his television and newspaper journalism: he was a reporter on the prestigious BBC current affairs Tonight programme and both athletics correspondent and sports editor of The Observer. He was also enormously proud of being the first President of the Sports Writers’ Association, later the SJA.
But it was the London Marathon which will serve as his most enduring memorial. From that first running in 1981, when the wide-eyed infant introduced itself to the sporting calendar, through to the 42,549 optimists who started the 2019 race, it has proved itself the best idea that British sport ever had. It has also, most astonishingly, raised more than one billion pounds for various charities, a sum which was surely beyond even Brasher’s imagination.
He died from pancreatic cancer on February 28, 2003. He wanted a small, private funeral, which Ian Wooldridge and I were privileged to attend. Bannister sat in the first pew, quietly struggling with his emotions. Behind him sat Chataway, head bowed and motionless. Towards the end of the service, Chataway moved forward to deliver the oration. It was a beautiful tribute, a masterpiece of unaffected eloquence.
At its conclusion, he gulped a deep breath and moved back to his place. As he passed that first pew, Bannister, reached out and grasped his sleeve, wordlessly shaking his head.
The mourners shuffled from the church. Stories were told and memories exchanged, and as people stood and chatted, lunchtime joggers pattered through the streets of Petersham.
The 2003 marathon was just six weeks away. Time to cram in the training miles. Time to renew those daring dreams. Time to get ready for London. Although they couldn’t know it, they were delivering Chris Brasher’s dream.