Athlete, Conservative minister and television journalist who found fame as part of the trio who broke the four-minute mile
Sir Christopher Chataway, who has died aged 82, was a Tory government minister, a pioneering television journalist and a successful businessman. But he will probably be best and longest remembered as a world-class runner and one of the trio, with his friends Roger Bannister and Christopher Brasher, who broke the four-minute-mile barrier for the first time in 1954.
That celebrity, as a British sporting hero at the dawn of what was optimistically seen then as the new Elizabethan age, was subsequently transferred to television, where he became the first newsreader to appear on screen for Independent Television. His political career encompassed periods as a moderate minister and as leader of the Inner London Education Authority, after which he entered business, latterly as chairman of the Civil Aviation Authority. He never lost his love of running however, competing in the Great North Run into his 80s.
Born in Chelsea, London, Chataway was brought up partly in the Sudan, where his father was a district commissioner, and he would become a doughty opponent of racial discrimination in a party where prejudice remained unrepentant. He would also be a long-time supporter of African development charities. Chataway was sent to Sherborne public school and went on to Magdalen College, Oxford, where he read philosophy, politics and economics and became president of the athletics club.
During his four-year international career as a runner, Chataway, nicknamed the Red Fox because of his ginger hair, was a fierce competitor in a Corinthian sporting tradition that seems impossibly amateur and dated now: unsponsored and part-time. "Our group was the last generation who were lucky enough just to be at the top of the sport while having it only as a recreation," he told the Washington Post 50 years later. "A very serious recreation to be sure – we worked hard at it, but we had other work as well." Chataway claimed he trained for no more than an hour a day, for six months a year. He smoked cigarettes then and, after he broke the world record for the 5,000m in October 1954, his Russian rivals were surprised to see him lighting a large cigar at the reception.
He took up competitive running at Oxford University in 1950, and within two years was in the 5,000m final of the Helsinki Olympics, where he kept up with athletes of the calibre of Emil Zátopek before stumbling on the final bend, even so picking himself up to finish fifth. Two years later he beat the Soviet champion Vladimir Kuts to set a world record of 13 minutes 51.6 seconds, a feat that won him the inaugural BBC Sports Personality of the Year award.
After two years working for Guinness – where his most lasting achievement was perhaps to suggest that the company might publish a book of records, edited by his athlete friends the McWhirter twins, Norris and Ross – he moved into television in 1955. At the newly established ITN his glamour and fame saw him briefly become a newsreader, chosen ahead of Robin Day to present its first bulletin, before joining the BBC's Panorama as a reporter for four years.
He was just the sort of dynamic young candidate the Conservative party of Harold Macmillan was looking for in the late 1950s, but rather than being parachuted into a safe parliamentary seat, Chataway chose to serve an apprenticeship representing North Lewisham on the London county council for three years – a career route that would be almost unimaginable now.
In 1959 he was elected MP for North Lewisham – a highly marginal constituency then but one he held for seven years until the Labour landslide of 1966 – and he would return to the Commons for the much safer seat of Chichester in a byelection three years later. In the later stages of the Macmillan government, he became a junior education minister and after his electoral defeat he served on the Inner London Education Authority (later to be abolished by Margaret Thatcher as a vehicle of socialist indoctrination). Chataway became the Ilea's leader during a spell when the Tories were in charge: as such he implemented, somewhat cautiously, the capital's drive to comprehensive schooling.
Following the Tories' unexpected general election victory in 1970, Edward Heath appointed Chataway to the privy council and offered him the still novel junior post of sports minister, but he declined this and opted instead to become minister of posts and telecommunications, where he was responsible for introducing commercial radio. Then he was promoted to become minister for industrial development in charge of regional aid.
As the government collapsed in the chaos of the three-day week, the tide ran out on Chataway's style of moderate, consensual Conservatism. He left parliament for good at the October 1974 election, to make money in the City, principally as managing director and then vice-chairman of Orion merchant bank, but also accumulating several other directorships.
In 1991 he became chairman of the Civil Aviation Authority and four years later was knighted for his services to aviation. He also became chairman of Groundwork, an environmental charity, treasurer, then chairman of ActionAid and treasurer of the National Campaign for Electoral Reform. He also supported a charity called Vicky's Water Project, set up in 2006 by his son Adam after his fiancee was killed in a road accident; it aimed to bring fresh water to villages in Ethiopia.
For many years Chataway served as president of the Commonwealth Games Council for England and for a time was chairman of UK Athletics. At the age of 79, preparing to take part in the Great North Run to raise money for the water project and aiming to beat 80% of the field, he mused to a journalist: "I sometimes think that running, which was a sort of tormentor in my youth, has returned to be a friendly codger in my old age."
Chataway is survived by his second wife, Carola Walker, whom he married in 1976, and their two sons; and by two sons and a daughter from his marriage to Anna Lett. His stepson, Charles Walker, is the Conservative MP for Broxbourne.
• Christopher John Chataway, athlete and politician, born 31 January 1931; died 19 January 2014