By John Bryant
Chris Brasher went to the Melbourne Olympics of 1956 as very much an athletic outsider. But something very extraordinary happened to him in Melbourne – so extraordinary it was to change his life.
In the 3,000 metres steeplechase, against all expectations Brasher, overhauled first his British team-mates, John Disley and Eric Shirley, then began to challenge for the lead.
There were three great achievements in Brasher’s life, any one of which would have been enough for most men: setting the pace in the first sub-four-minute mile, winning an Olympic gold medal, and getting the London Marathon up and running. His was a lifetime of improbable achievements as an athlete, mountaineer, journalist, environmentalist and businessman. And I am now researching and writing a biography of the man.
You may know me as editor of the Daily and Sunday Telegraph, deputy editor of The Times; for a long time I worked with the Daily Mail (where, among other things, I coached Zola Budd). I’ve written a number of books, mainly about my passion for the history of running.
I’d known Brasher from the 1960s, was a friend of his, and am now trying to make sense of his life, for which I’ll need a lot of help.
Brasher won the gold medal in Melbourne in what would become his trademark style – an unexpectedly combative run, followed by a major row. Never a man to accept the initial ruling of the judges who’d disqualified him, he fought back and was reinstated as the gold medal-winner.
He celebrated with a “liquid lunch” with the British press and collected his medal “blind drunk, breathing gin fumes over the French member of the International Olympic Committee”.
His gold medal was the triumph of bloody-minded determination over more obviously talented athletes – and pointed up the dichotomy of the man.
Chris Brasher was a complex character, full of contradictions. He made friends as easily as he made enemies. To many he was an heroic figure – a record-breaker, charity worker, a pioneer of fell-running and orienteering, the inventor of the Brasher Boot, President of the Sports Journalists’ Association for a spell before his death in 2003, and above all, the founding-father of the London Marathon.
But to others he was a ruthless go-getter, charmless bully, a fully-paid-up member of the awkward squad with the skin of a rhino, who many people couldn’t stand.
In that one race in Melbourne, Brasher shrugged off the giant, golden shadow of two men, apparently more glamorous and gifted – Roger Bannister and Chris Chataway.
Brasher was (perhaps to everyone’s surprise except himself) an Olympic champion at the age of 28. Donald Trelford, when editor of The Observer, once yelled angrily at Brasher, “Are you so big-headed because you won an Olympic gold medal, or did you win a gold medal because you are so big-headed?”
But, big-headed or not, that one win convinced Brasher of what he had long suspected – that anything is possible when you have enough self-belief.
I suspect that fellow journalists and broadcasters, those worked alongside him (some even for him) knew his character, his faults and his triumphs better than most. Everyone who met him has a Brasher story to tell.
His personality and approach to life and its obstacles spawned plenty of anecdotes. I’d be really delighted if you can recall any of these, particularly those where his abrasive attitude led to problems. He was clearly a man who made many friends, but his aggressive, even “bullying” go-getting attitude could also make a few enemies.
Where did you first meet Chris? What were the circumstances? What impression did he make on you – and you on him? All would help and really assist me in giving a rounded picture of the man. Do get in
touch, I’d really value your input. Long or short, anecdotes or opinions, whether he enthused you or trod on your toes with those Brasher boots, I’d love to know.
0208 949 2904