Racing Past

The History of Middle and Long Distance Running

Racing Past Articles Profile Chris Brasher


Chris Brasher Profile  

1929-2003

b. Georgetown, British Guyana

 

Brasher's triumph in 
Melbourne, 1956.

Chris Brasher, the 1956 Olympic Steeplechase champion, is mainly remembered today for establishing and developing the London Marathon. He is also remembered for his work as a sports journalist for the Observer newspaper. He became a multi-millionaire through his sports-equipment business, later donating of lot of his wealth to protect large tracts of wilderness in Scotland and Wales. His many successes after his retirement from competitive running have tended to overshadow his remarkable achievements on the running track. 

Not especially gifted physically, this English runner rose to the top through remarkable inner strength and an ability to dedicate himself to a task. Roger Bannister has attested to his “manic energy and single-mindedness.” (Introduction, John Bryant, Chris Brasher: The Man Who Made the London Marathon). Chris Chataway famously said that Brasher was 5% ability and 95% guts. Not surprisingly Brasher regarded two notable iron-men, Zatopek and Kuts, as his  heroes. (Interview with Gareth A. Davies, April 9, 2002) At best he had the talent of a top club runner, but he managed not only to run in two Olympics, but to win a gold medal with a perfectly judged race that saw him well clear of the world’s best steeplechasers. The story of Brasher’s ten-year athletic career deserves more recognition. 

Schoolboy

The son of an English electrical engineer, Christopher Brasher spent his first years in British Guyana, Baghdad and Jerusalem. At age seven he was taken to England, where  his early education was conducted at home. Like many children of his social class, he was sent away to boarding school at the age of eight. This difficult transition caused him to develop a stutter that no specialist was able to cure. What did finally help with his stutter was “achieving a good position, some status in the school. In my case, that came through sport.” (Bryant,  p.14) He played on the school’s cricket, soccer and rugby teams. On sports day, he showed average athletic ability. It was only in the cold winter of 1940, when the games pitches were unusable, that he discovered his aptitude for distance running. In a three-mile race over roads and trails, the eleven-year-old Brasher kept up with boys two years older to finish second. According to Bryant, “He had, on that March day of 1940, fallen in love with cross-country running.” (p.21) 

Moving to Rugby School in 1942, Brasher decided to focus on boxing and running. In boxing he was regarded as plucky; in running he was known to train harder than anyone else. When he abandoned boxing three years later, he became a respected up-and-coming runner in the school. But he didn’t stand out. His early dedication to running was inspired in part by a visit to his school by the great Sydney Wooderson. At 16 he made the school cross-country team and worked up to being the second best on the team. Then he was third in the Open Mile in the 1945 Sports day. The next year he was one of the school’s fastest cross-country runners, but still not a real stand-out. 

University

Following an unsuccessful year working as an engineering apprentice, Brasher managed to enroll at Cambridge University to read geology. It was here, after a year of neglect that he rediscovered running. He had kept fit during his apprenticeship year by cycling, rambling and climbing, and so performed well the first time he ran in the annual cross-country match against Oxford. The 19-year-old finished fifth and earned a mention in The Times. He went on to represent Cambridge on the track as well. It was at this time that he joined the Achilles Club, an elite club that enlisted both Oxford and Cambridge athletes. 

During his university years  (1947-1950), Brasher was generally seen as a cross-country runner. He took part in four races against  Oxford. On the track he was less successful. In 1948 he ran 9:06 and 14:36.8 for Two and Three Miles and hardly improved these times before leaving Cambridge. His best Three Miles in 1950 was only 14:27.8. That year also saw his first Steeplechase; as a member of the Achilles Club touring Greece, he was persuaded to try this event. 

While at Cambridge, Brasher was also a keen mountaineer and became president of the university mountaineering club. It was through this activity in 1949 that he first met John Disley, who was to become a lifelong friend.  One year later at the White City Stadium, Disley’s record-breaking steeplechasing stirred Brasher’s interest in the event. 

Brasher needed to stay at Cambridge an extra year to get his degree. And in that year he started to make his mark on the track. He won the Cambridge University Three Miles (14:22.4) and was second in the match against Oxford. He was also second in the Kinnaird Trophy Three Miles in the better time of 14:12.4. That August he put himself on the Steeplechase map with a 3rd place in the British Games (9:27.2). Then at the World student Games in Luxembourg, he ran a fine second to Josy Barthel in the 1,500 with 3:54. 0, and went on to win the 5,000 in 15:07.6. Such success put him on the official list of possibles for the 1952 Olympics. 

Olympian

Brasher and his great friend and rival John Disley (20).

Now working in London, Brasher trained hard for the Helsinki Olympics. It was his good fortune at this time to meet up with Franz Stampfl, an Austrian coach who had returned to England after spending the War years in Australia. Stampfl supervised regular interval-training sessions in Chelsea. Brasher became a regular. An early indication of  improvement came in the 1952 South of Thames cross-country race, where he finished fourth behind winner Frank Sando. But the big breakthrough came in May when he won a Steeplechase in 9:13.4, the second-fastest time by a Briton. This performance and a second-place finish behind Disley in a two-mile Steeplechase (10:03.6) earned Brasher an Olympic vest. 

In Helsinki he rose to the occasion, running brilliantly to reach the Olympic Steeplechase final, improving 10 seconds to qualify (fourth in 9:03.2). The Times reported he “once more showed cool courage.” (July 24, 1952) In the final he fell on the second lap and finished 11th in 9:14—still a good time considering his fall. His friend John Disley won the bronze. Later in the British Games, he beat the new Olympic champion Ashenfelter in a downpour to win with 9:25.6. This capped a wonderful season--his first under the coaching of Franz Stampfl—that saw his Steeplechase PB drop from 9:27.2 to 9:03.2. 

The next year, although Brasher ran well on the country, his track season had no real highlights. He ran 9:19.8 for second in an international race in Brussels and he represented Great Britain in a match against  Sweden, finishing a distant last in 9:33. So 1953 was a “down year.” 

Bannister’s Sub-4

Pacing Roger Bannister to the first sub-4 Mile.
Chris Chataway is in third place.

During the 1953-4 winter, Roger Bannister joined Brasher and Chataway for their regular Chelsea training sessions with Stampfl. It was after these sessions that the plan for Bannister to break four minutes was hatched. Stampfl’s plan was for Brasher to lead for the first 2 1/2 laps, then for Chataway to lead for the next lap, leaving Bannister to run the last 220 yards on his own. Brasher was doubtful whether he could last 2 1/2 laps at the required pace, but he told John Bryant, “Stampfl had a way of exorcising such doubts from the mind of an athlete.” (p.79) Brasher again rose to the occasion. (See Great Races #8) Despite being told to go faster by a confused Bannister, he stuck to the right pace, passing 440 in 57.5 and 880 in 1:58. He maintained this pace round the next bend to the point where Chataway was to take over. As Bannister went ahead to record his 3:59.4, Brasher plodded on. By the time he got to the finishing straight the track was full of ecstatic spectators, and in the chaos he was not timed. Still, he had made a major contribution to the running of the first sub-4 Mile. 

Brasher concentrated on flat races for the 1954 season, probably because there was no Steeplechase in the Vancouver Empire Games. He focused on shorter distances, running 3:53.6 and 3:54.8 for 1,500 and qualifying for the Vancouver Games in the Mile. He didn’t run well in Vancouver (4:15.4) and failed to qualify for the epic final. After watching his two companions Bannister and Chataway achieve yet more fame with their gold medals, he returned home determined to dedicate himself even more to his running career. As he told John Bryant, he felt he had to “give up all other activities and devote myself …to the climbing of my own particular pinnacle—an Olympic title.” In view of his level of performance so far, this would have seemed over-ambitious to many people. But then there was Franz Stampfl at Brasher’s shoulder. So, gone was the smoking (20 a day, plus some pipe smoking), gone was the mountain climbing, and gone were the girlfriends. 

New Resolve

The change in attitude and lifestyle brought results in the 1955 season. After taking his friend Chataway through 880 in 1:57.8 in an abortive record Mile record attempt, Brasher finally dipped under 9:00 in the AAA Steeplechase with 8:59.4. In this race he was second to Disley (8:56.6) and ahead of Eric Shirley (9:03.4), whom he passed in the last lap. This run earned him three international vests. He improved again in placing second against Germany with 8:56.0. Then in Russia he ran what The Times described as “the race of his life.” (Times, Sept. 12, 1955) He and Disley destroyed the Russians, who came from a strong Russian tradition in the Steeplechase. Disley won in 8:45.4, while Brasher amazed his team-mates with 8:49.2.  He placed second again against Czechoslovakia, this time in 9:06.8.  Now firmly established as Britain’s #2 steeplechaser, he was shocked right at the end of the season when he was beaten by Eric Shirley in a fast time of 8:47.6. With the Olympics looming, Britain now had three athletes in the top six in the World: Disley (2nd), Shirley (3rd) and Brasher (6th). 

As he began his winter training for the 1956 Olympic season, Brasher had to train without his inspiring coach Stampfl. Not a gifted runner, Brasher needed Stampfl’s inspiring presence, but the Austrian genius had moved to Australia. He was not interested in finding another coach, so they developed a system whereby Stampfl in Australia would tape his instructions for Brasher to listen to his coach’s inspirational voice on his own tape recorder in London. 

Brasher wrote that over the 1955-1956 winter he trained “harder than ever before.” (Observer, January 17, 1988) So when he lined up for the Olympic trial in the July AAA Championships, he was full of confidence: “The plan was simple. Relax for the first six laps…and then drive for the tape from 600 out.” (Observer, January 17, 1988) All went well until he made his move as planned. He dropped back after only 50m in the lead and suffered all the way to the finish. The race was won by Disley (8:51.6) and Shirley (8:53.4) was a clear second. His disappointing time of 9:02.6 led some selectors to consider dropping him from the Olympic team. 

Deeply troubled, Brasher contacted his coach in Australia: “Luckily I had a wise coach, Franz Stampfl, who argued that this awful performance could not be due to lack of training. So he prescribed a rest.” (Observer, January 17, 1988) Fully confident in his coach's advice, Brasher did nothing but run easily on a golf course for the next three weeks. 

Then good fortune came his way. Shirley, now Britain’s #2, dropped out of an international match against Czechoslovakia. This gave Brasher a chance to redeem himself. To ensure a fast time in the tactical four-man race, he led from the fourth to sixth laps, and then followed Disley on the last lap. He blew past Disley at the last water jump and held on well, fighting with Disley all the way down the straight. Although Disley just won (British Record, 8:46.6), Brasher’s fine 8:47.2 PB ensured his Olympic place. He had run such a brilliant race without a serious training session in three weeks. Where most runners would have panicked after a bad run and trained even harder, Stampfl’s coaching savvy had saved the day.

Second Olympics

Melbourne Olympic Steeplechase final: Brasher follows
Larsen and Rzhischin. Rozsnyoi is fourth and Shirley fifth.   

For his final preparation, Brasher obtained permission to leave early for Melbourne, where his coach now resided. Before he left, he ran in two more internationals. placing second against West Germany in 8:56.0 and fourth and last in Hungary after falling at the water jump (9:09.4). Once in Australia in mid-October, he could finally work with Stampfl again. After three weeks of adaptation and fine-tuning, he surprised everyone, including himself, by setting an Australian Two Miles record with 8:45.6. His final burst had left the Australian 1,500 gold-medal hope, John Landy, well behind. This race was an enormous confidence booster. So was a Steeplechase time-trial in 8:56.6 a few days later. 

His Olympic heat went well as he qualified for the final in fourth place with 8:53.8. The first heat had been more competitive with Disley and Rozsnyoi clocking times seven seconds faster. And Shirley had won his heat in 8:52.6. But Brasher was ready, buoyed by the words of Stampfl and confident that he was in the best form of his life. 

Olympic Steeplechase Final 

Facing Brasher in the final were two steeplechasers who had broken Jerzy Chromik’s 8:40.2 WR that year. First, the Russian Semyon Rzhischin ran 8:39.8, and then the Hungarian Sandor Rozsnyoi lowered the mark drastically to 8:35.6. This time was 11.6 seconds faster than Brasher’s PB. Then there was the Norwegian Ernst Larsen, who had run 8:42.4 earlier in 1956. Also in the field was the promising German Heinz Laufer. Finally, Brasher faced his team-mates: Disley, whom he had never beaten, and Eric Shirley. 

In the final Larsen of Norway went straight to the lead. He was five meters up after 200 and 12 up after the first lap (68.8). Disley led the chase group, while Brasher was back in seventh. Over the next lap (68.2) Disley halved Larsen’s lead to six yards. By the end of the fourth lap, Larsen was caught by the field. On the fifth lap, Brasher moved past his two team mates into fourth, while Larsen still led. 

On the sixth lap, Rzhishchin of the USSR roared to the front and took Rozsnyoi, Larsen and Brasher with him. The Russian led at the bell from Rozsnyoi, Brasher and Larsen, but he wasn’t able to break away. Going round the penultimate bend there was some elbow bumping between Larsen and Brasher. Then going into the back straight, Brasher made his move, driving between Rozsnyoi and Larsen as they cleared the hurdle. Brasher’s move got him well clear of his two rivals by the time he reached the last water jump. “When I went, with 300 to go, I looked back and I knew I had the gold medal,” he recalled later. (Gareth Davies, Interview) It was only at the last hurdle that he looked vulnerable, but he held on well to cross the line in 8:41.2 and win his Olympic gold medal by 2.4 seconds from Rozsnyoi. It was an Olympic record to boot and a six-second PB.

Last water jump in the Melbourne Olympic Steeplechase
final: "I knew I had the gold medal."                       

But his jubilation was short-lived. Ten minutes later, when Brasher was starting to recover, the announcement came over the loudspeakers: First Rozsnyoi, second Larsen.… Brasher thought there had been an error, but a nearby official told him he had been disqualified. He stormed across to the jury of appeal who told him that he had been disqualified for obstructing Larsen at the top of the back straight. Brasher registered an official protest. Following this, he met with his main competitors. Laufer, who was due to get the bronze because of the qualification, said he would refuse the medal. Larsen, whom Brasher had supposedly bumped, said that he had not been impeded. Brasher had to wait three hours before the Jury announced that the disqualification had been overturned. The celebrations then began, and when Brasher accepted the gold medal the next morning, the effects of the previous night and of the journalists’ celebration with him in the morning caused Brasher to have no memory at all of the medal ceremony. “I reckon I’m the only Olympic champion  to be totally and absolutely slaughtered when he received a medal,” he has claimed. (Bryant, 104) 

Brasher’s triumph testifies not only to his dedication and inner strength but also to Franz Stampfl’s coaching. Brasher had always been recognized for his courage and determination. Not a gifted athlete, he had nevertheless developed into a respectable runner, but it needed the coaching of Stampfl to raise him first to international level and then to an Olympic gold medal. Not everyone was suited to train under Stampfl, but Brasher was strong enough and intelligent enough, like Ralph Doubell in the 1960s, to benefit greatly from the powerful influence of the Austrian-born coach. 

New Challenges

A month later, Brasher announced his retirement from competition. He continued with a very active public life. He was one of the pioneers of Orienteering in the UK and worked for over 30 years as a journalist for the English Sunday paper The Observer and then for the BBC. Journalism was not enough for him, so he continued mountaineering and orienteering. His outdoor activities led him to involvement with running and hiking shoes. Eventually he designed his own lightweight boot, the Brasher Boot, and became a millionaire. But by far his most famous and lasting contribution was the London Marathon. 

The idea of a London marathon grew out his 1978 participation in the New York Marathon with his friend John Disley and his club Ranelagh Harriers. Full of enthusiasm on his return home, he worked with John Disley to build up support for this huge project. The inaugural race was in 1981 with 7,747 runners. Brasher himself, then 51, entered this race and recorded a 2:56. The next year the field was 18,059. The London Marathon has since grown to rival the New York Marathon as the world’s premier marathon. 

Brasher’s zest for life never ebbed. According to John Bryant, he was still walking, climbing, skiing and sailing in his seventies. All went well for him until 2002 when he was diagnosed with incurable pancreatic cancer. He died in early 2003. 

Conclusion

A recurring quality can be traced through Brasher’s running career: when the chips were down in important races, he always came though. In the 1951 World Student Games he won the 5,000 gold medal and then ran a fine 1,500 PB to place second to Barthel (the 1952 Olympic Champion). In the 1952 Olympic heats he ran a 10-second PB to reach the Steeplechase final. In 1956, when he had to run a fast time to be selected for the Olympics, he ran a PB. And then of course his gold medal run produced yet another PB in 1956. 

Of course, Brasher did have some natural ability, but far less than his two talented friends Bannister and Chataway. Yet he was the only one of the trio to win an Olympic gold. True, Bannister’s event and Chataway’s event were much more competitive in the 1950s than the Steeplechase,  but this gold-medal achievement indicates something special in Brasher’s character. An insight into this character can be seen in a non-athletic incident in his life not long after he retired. He once witnessed an out-of-control car collide with two stationary cars and then saw the driver run from the scene. According to the press report, “He gave chase, caught the man…and asked him to return. The motorist aimed a blow at him and again ran off, but Mr. Brasher again gave chase, caught him…and sat on him till the police arrived.” (Times, Apr. 2, 1959)  

Note: I am indebted to John Bryant’s excellent biography of Chris Brasher for some of the details of Brasher’s childhood and schooldays.


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