Coach's Column

June 2003


A Tribute to a Pal (from Max Jones)

(Coach’s Column, March 2003, completed May 2003)

I was going to write about Paula Radcliffe and how a litre of orange juice more or less could have effected her racing performances from the Sydney 10000m in 2000 to the Chicago Marathon two years later. But I was already off the pace of your Editor’s relentless clock when Chris Brasher died.

AT CAMBRIDGE. Even now, 10 days later, I keep being reminded of my pal from Cambridge days. We were both nobodies then – one of us still is, of course – but we duly got our Blues, together in the Cross-Country team in 1947 and running 3 miles in the Track team, he for the two years after I had left in 1948.

We were never close friends after our paths had crossed for just that one year, I returning after University to live in Birmingham and he to the Thames Valley. But we met several times, usually at some Oxbridge occasion such as the annual X-country scamper over Wimbledon Common.

Oxford had dominated our race in 1947, four of the beggars finishing in line abreast a hundred yards or so ahead of us. I had been up with them for two thirds of the course until, when trying to steal five yards crossing a brook which I hadn’t realised until it was too late had been swollen by recent rains, I went too fast into it and I was literally brought to a halt in the middle of it. They were gone by the time I had waded out.

Chris had caught up with me with about half a mile to go, but any thought that we might jog in together was soon dispelled. So a secondary race developed, to be the first Cambridge man home, and I just managed to hold him to a dead-heat for 5th place! It was to be over 50 years, when one of our contemporaries held a party for his 80th birthday, before I learnt from Peter Curry, Oxford’s team Captain that day, the reason for that quadruple dead-heat.

Earlier in 1947 and with my Birchfield background, I had persuaded the X-Country Captain to apply to the Blues Committee for changes to the format from the old 6 to run, 5 to count of the previous 55 years to 9 to run, 6 to count as in the National. That had been granted but the two Committees had not altered the "Half-Blue" status of X-Country in general. There was just the one concession that the first man home would receive a Full Blue. Peter, who had won the race and his Blue in 1946, glanced behind as he neared the finish and saw the next three Dark Blues were far enough clear of us. So he stopped to wait for them.

I had always thought that their triumphantly beaming faces in my photo album were because they had beaten Chris and me. Not so, their victory over us was much less important than their victory over their own Blues Committee. And longer lasting, too. On the day, the Oxbridge Cross-Country Establishment was outraged by this lack of total commitment of all individuals to winning its prestigious race, but to no avail. Peter’s literal interpretation of the Rules had made Cross-Country into a Full Blue sport.

His coup had wider repercussions. The two Blues Committees, which was made up only of dons with Rowing, Cricket and Rugby Blues to their credit, now had to decide what to do about a similar Rule which governed the awarding of Full Blues to ‘first strings’ only in the Track & Field teams, i.e. to fewer than half the total members of them. So it was that within a few years the numbers of Athletics Blues alone was to exceed those of the Committee‘s original Big Three all told and that was effectively that.

Table Tennis, Korfball[!], Ice Hockey and a dozen others are now Half Blue sports and I’ve heard talk of an application being lodged for American Football. Even the Rugger Buggers finally had to acknowledge the existence of League, though only as a "Discretionary Full Blue" sport. Will professional RL players ever be allowed in, we ask!?

LEARNING ABOUT LIFE's HURDLES. Oxford dominated the race for the next two years also, but I’d heard we might have a better chance in 1950. We did win the team event then, but Chris was beaten into second place yet again by Chris Chataway. At the Dinner afterwards, Chris B and I got to considering our futures in Athletics. He was more interested in Track by then, I was in the Birchfield scoring Six sometimes but not always.

I recalled the London Olympics and the fact that two of the Oxonians of their 4-in-a-row thrashing of us had run in the 3000m steeplechase there, albeit finishing last in their heats. "The Important Thing In The Olympic Games Is Not Winning But Taking Part" the then-new "electric scoreboard" had proclaimed at the Opening Ceremony [but even in 1950 we didn’t believe that!].

I said that we were never going to beat Chris C over 5000m or Roger B in the 1500, but we hadn’t finished all that far behind Peter Curry and Geoff Tudor in 1947, so if they could make the grade in the Steeple then we ought to give it a go. Sweden had finished 1-2-3 in 1948, the winner in 9:04 and the bronze in 9:12. We could run quicker than that on the flat, we only had to learn how to hurdle and we’d be in with a chance in it.

I entered the Midland Counties Championships the following May, with very little preparation other than doing the stretching exercises I’d seen the 110m hurdlers do. Birchfield didn’t have any steeple hurdles, we were the only Club in Birmingham apart from the University to have a Track of our own, so it was no surprise that there were fewer than 10 runners in a straight Final. Those who were, from memory, were all cross-country runners. As I had thought, the field was wide open. Just get in there, Jones!

Alas, it was not as easy as I had presumed. Somehow the barriers seemed to get a little bit higher each lap, maybe because I got more and more scared of hitting one hard, ending up in a heap on the track and my race being over there and then. I made it to the finish, just, in, er, 11:05. It had been the hardest race I had ever run and it was to be so for the next 46 years!

BRASHER WAS A FIGHTER. My pal, though, was made of sterner stuff than I. While I only ran Cross-Country and Road Relays, he concentrated on speed work and racing in the 1500s and Miles, running in steeplechases when it was in the programme, which wasn’t often because there was little interest in this interloper from the Country. He got into the Olympic team for Helsinki in 1952 – finishing last but one while John Disley was winning the bronze – but then he surprised a class field, including Disley, to win gold in 1956 in a new Olympic record of 8:41.2. Brilliant! "Well run, Cambridge!" I cabled him.

A tale which isn’t often told is that there were only two British Olympic gold medallists in the 20th Century who didn’t receive a Gong on their return: they were Terry Spinks, the flyweight boxer, and Chris Brasher, both of whom had triumphed in Melbourne in 1956. There was a double page spread in the Guardian G2 just a year or so ago about "The Forgotten Man of Gold" and it was all about Spinks. He reckoned it was because he was just a little lad from the East End of London and that no one had noticed him because he had won the lightest weight category, not the heavyweight one.

Not so. Chris’s parents had not been short of a bob or three – his father had been in the Colonial Office, he had worked overseas as a radio engineer and he had sent his son to Rugby School – so Chris was quite able to look after himself wherever he was. British teams at that time were "managed" by members of the British Amateur Athletic Board, even to the extent that anyone competing abroad had to be accompanied by at least one BAAB official. When Jim Peters had run in the Boston Marathon in 1954, as was his wont the official who accompanied him, Jack Crump, flew first class – alleging he had other BAAB business in the States – while Peters had to make do in "steerage".

While the BAAB officials were doing very nicely, thank you, in their all expenses paid hotel rooms, Chris was outraged to find that such as Fred Norris, the Bolton United Harrier who was running in the 10000m, didn’t even have enough money to ring home to say that he’d arrived safely. Chris never suffered fools or Authority gladly. He got up a petition with John Disley and a few others, and presented Jack Crump with an ultimatum: Either give us all proper expense allowances or we won’t run.

That little matter settled, then, Terry won the flyweight Final, Fred Norris rang home and Chris rang the gold bell in the steeple. But in the aftermath of the Suez débâcle, when a US President pulled the plug on his attempt to effect régime change on the Egyptian prototype of Saddam Hussain, Anthony Eden somehow overlooked the successes of our boys Down Under.

Jack Crump didn’t remind Eden to mention it to the Queen when he tendered his resignation to her the following month and then he must have forgotten about it himself when Harold Macmillan took on the job. Crump was an Eastender, too. Strange, that.

THE FIRST LAP OF THE FIRST FOUR MINUTES. Two years previously Chris had been the pacemaker for the first two laps in the Bannister Mile. I asked him afterwards if he had been scared of the responsibility, particularly as it was well known that John Landy was almost certain to go sub-4 when he came up to Europe for the summer [which he did]. Chris said he would have been if Franz Stampfl, Roger’s coach, had asked for anything other than 58 seconds. "However hard I try", he said, "I can’t run the quarter faster than that. There was a bit of a scare at 220 yards, though, when Roger yelled "Faster, Chris". So we ran it in 57.9 instead".

BIDDING FOR ANOTHER LONDON OLYMPICS. My last long conversation with him was 20 years ago. I was a member of the National Council of Building Material Producers and the industry was suffering from the very high interest rates and taxes of the early 1980s. I thought it would be a big boost for us if London could stage the 1988 Olympics and so to continue the sequence of 1908 and 1948. I met Chris in a pub near his home in Richmond, Surrey.

He explained that then the IOC’s policy was to move the Games around the globe, touching down in each Continent once every 16-20 years, but it hadn’t worked out quite like that. There was nowhere in Africa then with the necessary resources; they had been held only once in Asia, in 1964, and once in Australia in 1956, but they had been in Europe in 1952, ’60, ’72 and ’80.

A further complicating factor had been that, partly due to a boycott by some African countries protesting about the All Blacks Rugby team playing in apartheid South Africa, Montreal had lost hundreds of millions of dollars in 1976 – which its citizens are still paying higher taxes for in 2003, it is said – and Moscow had been the only bidder for 1980 and Los Angeles for 1984.

Resulting from all that, it would be essential for any bidding City to have the wholehearted support of the national Government right from the start. When we had met in the spring of 1981 to discuss a London bid, the London Marathon had just had a hugely successful first running – to the delight of the 6500 finishers and the London hoteliers – and it hadn’t cost London voters a penny.

Before giving the go-ahead in early 1980, Sir Horace Cutler, the then [Tory] Chairman of the old GLC and ever mindful of the wrath of voters if asked to pay more taxes, had insisted that Chris pick up the tab should the race show a loss. Chris and John Disley owned a business called Sweatshop – yes, THE Sweatshop – which sold running shoes and clothing, so I’ve no doubt that it was put up as collateral. And, just to make sure, they offered Cutler a kitty of £75000 to be distributed among the five Boroughs through which the marathon would pass.

So Chris was sure that he could get Horace Cutler’s backing for 1988 – I have reason to believe that he did in fact do so – but Mrs Thatcher was unmoved. In the wake of the near-doubling of VAT in 1979 and the actual doubling of unemployment, her Government had become extremely unpopular by the Spring of 1981. Not one for spending public money on anything which would not bring in a quick return or didn’t interest her or both, she turned down Cutler’s approach without a second thought.

Not saddled with the threat of another Montreal on her hands, she duly went on to win the 1983 General Election in a landslide on the back of the post-Falklands War effect. The voters of London, meanwhile, could not be swayed by the promise of foreigners paying for the regeneration of East London which was not going to happen and the Socialists swept back into power later in 1981.

Their pre-Election leader was replaced immediately by a left-winger by the name of Ken Livingston; Mrs T couldn’t stand him and after a lot of handbagging she lost patience with him by abolishing the GLC altogether.

I wonder what became of those two? Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose! Whatever, I guess that Chris Brasher will be remembered for as long as they are.

AND, FINALLY. Chris did eventually get a CBE ‘for services to Athletics’, i.e. for starting the London Marathon. As a last public display of the gratitude to him when it was known that he was dying, it had been intended that he and John Disley would start this year’s race. In the event his widow, Wimbledon tennis player as was Shirley, did the honours with John.

I suggested that the 35 remaining EverPresents should assemble for a photoshoot by the Bandstand near the back of the Red Start in Greenwich Park and, black-beribboned, 11 of us did. A poor turnout, I thought, but it made us feel better that we had done the right thing for the guy who had been responsible for bringing so much fun into the lives of so many of us

Farewell, friend.