THE death of Sir Christopher Chataway from cancer at the age of 82 was not a surprise in itself but it was a revelation to read his obituary. He was a sporting hero of the early 1950s and those headlines stood him in good stead in his subsequent career as news reader, politician etc.

My surprise was directed at the relatively modest nature of his athletics career. He won a European Championship silver medal in the 5,000 metres in 1954; finished fifth after falling on the last bend in the Helsinki Olympics final in 1952, and took part in the 1956 Olympics, finishing 11th in the final, and won a gold in the Commonwealth Games.

Not bad but I expected more – he was one of the schoolboy heroes of the era, winning the first-ever BBC Sports Personality of the Year.

Yes, he was a key pacemaker in Roger Bannister’s historic sub-four-minute mile but, with his red hair, Chataway seemed to epitomise the never-say-die spirit of British sport.

Then the penny dropped. In those days, newspaper editors knew little about sport. They gave the public heroes because we needed heroes and if someone spectacularly put his head above the parapet, no matter how briefly, he or she was given a shot of instant fame. We had just undergone all the deprivations suffered during the post-war era – power cuts, fuel shortages, rationing, the 1947 winter and the growing realisation that we were bit-players in world standing and politics.

For instance when the Magical Magyars came to Wembley and humiliated England 6-3 at football and then won the return match 7-1, that was another series of blows to the national psyche.

Andy Warhol had not made his mark back in the early 1950s and his prediction of 15-minutes of fame for all and sundry would prove prescient, but back in those grainy days when life seemed to be lived in black and white, anyone grabbing fame would have it for far longer than 15 minutes: in some cases, a lifetime.

Christopher Chataway’s subsequent career won him a knighthood and national esteem yet he would always be remembered as a wonderful athlete.

His claim to fame came at the White City shortly after he had been beaten into second place by Russia’s Vladimir Kuts in the European Championships. We knew, of course, that while Chataway was a true amateur and had to work for a living, Kuts was in the Russian Army and was afforded all the support and assistance to wave the Soviet flag around the world’s athletic tracks, so underlining the superiority of the Soviet system, or so they thought.

Shortly after Kuts’ success, he came with the Moscow team to London to take part in an inter-capital; athletics event. Chataway won that night, gaining revenge over Kuts and setting up a new world record for the 5,000 meters in the process.

His triumph, as he crossed the finishing line, was photographed and appeared on every front page and it was further beamed to a Europe, longing for success against the Russian tyrants.

Chataway joined Sir Edmund Hillary (conqueror of Everest) and Dennis Compton who not only gave us the glorious “Compton summer” but also hit the Ashes winning run against Australia in the final test in 1953, as the era’s icons. Roger Bannister was up there too.

It mattered not that Chataway lost his world record to Kuts some ten days later, or that Bannister’s record was clipped or that subsequently people climbed Everest every year. Those people hit the headlines and were feted, for the country was desperate for good news. As a result they remained forever famous.

So after Hungary beat England, five of the Magyars arrived with club Honved to take part in a floodlit friendly at Wolves. It was always more than just a football match, as Hungary was communist, under the Russian jackboot, and so this was a clash of ideologies.

The British Press dubbed it the club championship of the world, with even less validity than when the Yanks dub their domestic competition The World Series.

We sat round the radio and listened to Raymond Glendenning and his breathless commentary “. . . and he crosses and up go the heads”, as if heads could move unconnected from the body. The televised highlights thrilled us later but we already knew Wolves were a second-half team, on very little evidence other than the indomitable spirit imbued in them to fight to the end: the Dunkirk spirit.

So when Honved went two goals up after 14 minutes, we were worried but Wolves held on until the interval and of course we “knew” they’d come back. Indeed they did, with Johnny Hancocks converting a penalty just after half-time. Then the poshly-named Royston Swinbourne headed in from Dennis Wilshaw’s cross to equalise and then he hit the winner in a 3-2 success over Puskas and co.

That made front page headlines. It was the second triumph for Wolves because they had entertained Moscow Spartak the previous month and had been held 0-0 at half time. Then that second-half spirit kicked in and they won 4-0.

More front page headlines as the plucky Wanderers had proved the democratic system was best, or so the victory was treated.

The politic significance in my schoolboy mind was dwarfed by the fact I had plenty of offers for my Royston Swinbourne cigarette card.

Of course the publicity and national fervour that greeted Chataway’s success and that of Wolves was totally disproportionate but, in those Cold War days, they were accorded maximum coverage. Soon the local cinema’s Pathe News would feature the Wolves’ success, with an inane commentary by someone who had little idea of the game, but had the required BBC accent –“Been a sporting game with very few penalties”. He meant, free kicks.

Now it seems hard to justify but after Chataway and Wolves, the nation walked with a little more swagger in the step with perhaps a “take that Ivan” smirk on the face. We’ll always be grateful for that.

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