By Roger Barbee
A small notice in the Northern Virginia Daily this week caught my eye: Chris Chataway had died of cancer at the age of 82. Later I asked my wrestlers had any of them ever heard of him and was not surprised by their uniform, "No." But in my mind, Chris Chataway is the type of athlete every young person should know about and try to emulate for what he did on May 06, 1954 and the life he led afterward.
Following his studies at Magdalen College, Oxford, England, he became a member of Parliament and was a cabinet minister. He married, fathered children, and led a good life. In 2004, at the age of 73, he ran a 10-kilometer race in 49.08. But after a two-year battle with cancer, he died on Jan. 19th, 2014 in London.
To set a world record in an athletic event is quite an achievement. Many sports, such as baseball, seem obsessed with records of all types. Chataway set world records in 1956-'57 in the 5,000 meters and raced in two Olympics.
However, for me what he did on the Iffley Road track in Oxford in 1954 sets him apart from many other world-class athletes. He did not set a world record on that cold, wet May day in Oxford, but he helped a fellow athlete become the first runner to accomplish what had been thought of as impossible before. And to be the first to achieve a mark in an event can never be removed from the record book.
All records will, eventually, be surpassed, but the name of the first to accomplish something worthy will last.
Thus, on May 06, 1954, Chris Chataway helped Roger Bannister to break the unimagined 4-minute mile.
Three young English graduate students at Oxford trained together for the assault on the barrier. Each day during their lunch hour they trained hard and developed a strategy to break that barrier.
Chris Brasher, a steeplechase runner, was to lead the first two laps and then for lap 3 and some of lap 4, Chataway would take over the yeoman's work. Because of his powerful kick and speed, Roger Bannister would stay in contact with both and race to, it was hoped, a time under 4 minutes.
Each runner did his part and the barrier was broken when Bannister ran a 3:59.4 mile. Bannister was quoted as saying, "We did it." Shortly afterward, in June of the same year, the Australian runner John Landy lowered the record to 3:58.0 and credited Chataway with helping him by pressing the pace for the race.
The Iffley Road track is still there, and I have run on it. However, it is now a modern one, not the cinder track that was used in 1954. Yet, for me it was a joy to jog a few laps where history had been made, and to imagine how hard those three young men had worked and believed in order to accomplish their mark.
Yet, what impresses me the most is the spirit that each Chris gave to the task. Their names are not the one listed as the first person to run a mile in under 4 minutes. However, they chose to use their talents to help a teammate make history and he was gracious enough to share the limelight with them.
After his competitive years of running were over, Chataway wrote: "In my experience, the average athlete does not run, jump, or throw for the greater good of his country. He does it to satisfy himself, to meet his own competitive urges, to prove something to nobody but himself."
I find these words remarkable because they show how humble he was. He saw himself as an average runner, one who set world records and helped a friend remove a barrier, but who was just average trying his best to satisfy only himself. His sacrifice and willingness are a far cry from what I see today in so many athletes from middle school to the pros.
I mentioned that Chataway had run a 1- kilometer race in 49.08 in 2004, when he was 73 years old. I failed to mention that the race was the Chris Brasher Memorial race (who had died in 2003) and that Bannister was the starter.
Their sport had brought them together one more time.
Roger Barbee is a retired educator who lives in Edinburg with his wife Mary Ann, four dogs and five cats. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.