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How it all began

Power suits, perms and personal stereos were all the rage when Olympic steeplechase medallists Chris Brasher and John Disley accomplished arguably their greatest achievement ever on 29 March 1981 – staging the inaugural London Marathon.

Months of hard work and painstaking planning had paid off following a chance conversation around two-and-a-half years earlier.

As with many pivotal moments in Great British history, the story of the London Marathon can be traced back to a pub. The then Dysart Arms next to Richmond Park was the home of the Ranelagh Harriers running club.

On Wednesday nights runners would gather over a few drinks to trade training tips, compare personal bests, and mull over the day’s current affairs – at the time including the Winter of Discontent, which was gripping the UK with widespread public sector strikes.  

One evening, the main topic of discussion was the New York City Marathon. Established in 1970, the race was largely unknown until 1976 when the route was changed to encompass all five boroughs of the city.

Several Ranelagh Harriers had competed in the 1978 edition and never tired of talking about it. Stories were shared about an almost mythical event with an electric atmosphere where spectators lined the streets to relentlessly cheer runners through the famous city.

They were amazed how different it was to UK marathons, where a handful of spectators and a few cows watched 20 or so competitors trudge around country lanes.

“To believe this story you must believe that the human race can be one joyous family, working together, laughing together, achieving the impossible.”

-Chris Brasher, 1979

The boom years

In the USA, competitive road running and recreational jogging was enjoying an unprecedented boom. The catalyst had occurred at the Munich 1972 Olympic Games when the USA won the men’s marathon gold for the first time in 64 years.

Frank Shorter’s dramatic victory inspired millions of Americans, including President Jimmy Carter, to take up running during the next decade. For previous generations, running was a peculiar pastime that was better left exclusively to elite athletes.   

As Kenny Moore, one of the original  Nike athletes, wrote: “It may be hard for anyone born after 1960 to believe but runners in those days were regarded as eccentric at best, subversive and dangerous at worst.”

Brasher and Disley were keen to break a similar stereotype in the UK by sharing their love of running. One of the six founding aims of the London Marathon was to help everyone ‘to have fun, and provide some happiness and sense of achievement in a troubled world’.

After weeks of listening to inspiring stories from the Big Apple and beyond, the duo decided to run in the 1979 New York City Marathon on 21 October. They were both mesmerised by the experience.

At the time, Brasher was a columnist for The Observer, having previously been Sports Editor. After returning home from the USA, he penned a piece called ‘The World’s Most Human Race’.

He wrote: “To believe this story you must believe that the human race can be one joyous family, working together, laughing together, achieving the impossible. Last Sunday, 11,532 men and women from 40 countries in the world, assisted by over a million people, laughed, cheered and suffered during the greatest folk festival the world has seen.”

Brasher ended the article by wondering “whether London could stage such a festival? We have the course, a magnificent course… but do we have the heart and hospitality to welcome the world?”

Brasher and Disley made it their mission to find out. They were assisted by Donald Trelford, then editor of The Observer, who hosted a lunch in early 1980 so the pair could meet the relevant authorities who’d be involved in organising a marathon – the Greater London Council (GLC), the Police, the City of London, the Amateur Athletics Association and the London Tourist Board.

The pros and cons of a marathon were discussed and it was agreed that the idea was worth pursuing.

The difficulty came in persuading the police that 26.2 miles of roads could be closed for a marathon without causing London to shut down completely.

A couple of weeks later, Disley presented a course design that used the Thames as a ‘handrail’, while only closing two bridges. One of those, Tower Bridge, was often shut on Sundays anyway.

The police approved the event and the tourist board were happy the course passed so many of London’s landmarks – Cutty Sark, Tower Bridge, the Docks, the Embankment, Big Ben and Buckingham Palace.

There was one condition from Sir Horace Cutler, the chairman of the GLC, who told Brasher and Disley: “You should never ask the ratepayers to bail you out. Not a penny from the GLC.”

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The first cliffhanger

In 1980, millions of people around the world were asking ‘Who shot JR?’ The universally popular soap opera Dallas had left viewers guessing after the final episode of the third series aired in March that year.  

An estimated 21.5 million people tuned into BBC One to discover the answer – a record viewing figure for a soap opera at that time.

The end of series cliffhanger technique proved so popular, it soon became a staple of the final episode of most American TV series.

However, there was only one question on Brasher and Disley’s minds: how much would it cost to stage a marathon in London?

At the time, Margaret Thatcher’s newly elected government were putting pressure on the British Olympic Association to show solidarity with the USA by boycotting the Moscow 1980 Olympic Games due to the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979.

Sixty-six countries did boycott the Games but the BOA defied the government’s demands by sending a squad of 219 athletes. Great Britain won five gold medals, including in the men’s 100m, 800m and 1500m, courtesy of Allan Wells, Steve Ovett and Seb Coe.

Meanwhile, a fellow Olympic champion was on a very different mission. Brasher went on fact-finding trips to the Boston and New York City Marathons to discuss finance and organisation of the races. On his return, a budget was prepared for the first London Marathon.

With projected costs £75,000 above any revenue expected from entry fees, the inaugural race was thrown into serious doubt… until fortune smiled on the fledgling enterprise.

Gillette had just ended their sponsorship of cricket’s one-day county cricket cup after 17 years. The company asked their agents, West Nally, for advice on what to sponsor next. Co-founder Peter West told his clients about two Olympians who were putting on a marathon and needed help.

A deal was done in the autumn of 1980 and Gillette became the London Marathon’s first title sponsor. The deal was worth £75,000 a year for three years. Brasher and Disley had the money they needed, now they had five months to make their dream become a reality. The pair threw themselves into planning the event.

A troubled world

Meanwhile, the world was stunned for a second time in 1980 when another much-loved icon was shot. Tragically, this time it wasn’t a soap opera cliffhanger – it was real. On 8 December, John Lennon was murdered outside his home in New York.

The troubled world that Brasher and Disley were eager to help remedy with the London Marathon had raised its ugly head once again. 1980 rolled into 1981 soundtracked by Lennon, as his songs spent eight out of 10 weeks at the top of the UK singles chart.

In the ensuing weeks, Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer officially announced their engagement, the pioneering home computer, Sinclair ZX81, was flying off shelves in WH Smith for less than £100, and after an unprecedented seven years, Tom Baker relinquished his role as Doctor Who.

A week later, around 7,000 people gathered in Greenwich Park to run the first ever London Marathon. More than 22,000 people had applied to run but capacity was capped due to safety reasons.

There were 6,255 finishers, led home by the American Dick Beardsley and Norwegian Inge Simonsen, who crossed the Finish Line hand in hand on a rain-swept Constitution Hill and remain friends to this day. Joyce Smith broke the British record to win the women’s race.

The event was a massive hit with the runners, the thousands of spectators who lined the streets, and viewers who watched the highlights on the BBC. The following day, Chariots of Fire, a story about two British Olympic runners was released into cinemas. It became a box office hit and would win four Academy Awards. Running was in vogue.  

Brits were triumphing across popular culture. Bucks Fizz won the Eurovision song contest in April and, in May, Liverpool FC won the European Cup for a third time. English clubs were enjoying a spectacular six season spell that saw Nottingham Forest, Liverpool and Aston Villa all lift the trophy.    

Later that year, the British public would be introduced to a new family on their television sets for the first time – the Trotters from Peckham. Derek and Rodney would become firm favourites, woven into the rich tapestry of British culture. Some might say, just like the London Marathon.