Mike Rowbottom

This coming Sunday (October 4), the London Marathon will take place in an ingenious, coronavirus-conscious format that would have been entirely novel to the men who co-founded this annual sporting celebration in 1981, John Disley and Chris Brasher; both sadly no longer with us.

Brasher, who won the Olympic 3000 metres steeplechase title two years after playing his pace-making part in Roger Bannister's breaking of the four minute mile in 1954, went on to become The Observer's athletics correspondent before moving metaphorical mountains to establish the marathon that is now a jewel in Britain's sporting heritage.

In order to convince the General London Council – as it was then – the Boroughs, the Mayor of London and the police, fire and ambulance services, what Brasher needed above all as he sought to install the kind of inspirational big city marathon that he had already seen up and running in New York, was a command of the detail.

Brasher was a details man. One of my favourite paragraphs of his in my scrapbooks of 1970s athletics writing from The Guardian and The Observer was the last one of his report on an underwhelming Great Britain versus Sweden match at Crystal Palace in September 1973, as home athletes sought to earn selection for the 1974 Commonwealth Games that would take place early the following year in Christchurch, New Zealand.

Pointing out that a meeting eight days earlier at the same venue, promoted by athletes themselves through the International Athletes Club, had attracted 11,000 spectators, Brasher suggested that the British Board – organisers of the two-nation fixture – should hand over the job to their runners and field eventers.

Chris Brasher, co-founder of the London Marathon, catching up on some more vital details in 1985 ©Getty Images
Chris Brasher, co-founder of the London Marathon, catching up on some more vital details in 1985 ©Getty Images

"Yesterday," he concluded, "the crowd amounted to 1,400 men, women, children and babies (personally counted by Roger Purfleet and myself), and that included the timekeepers and five small boys on bicycles."

Roger Purfleet was a name adopted occasionally by The Guardian's then athletics correspondent, the late lamented John Rodda…

Donald Trelford, editor of The Observer from 1975 to 1993, has recalled how a special lunch was held by the paper at the time Brasher was seeking to persuade the powers-that-were to establish his vision of a mass marathon with world class runners at the front end.

At one point, Trelford noted, the senior police officers, warming to the idea, suggested it be discussed again the following year.

"But then Horace Cutler, the chairman of Greater London Council, just shouted 'Nonsense! It's going to be next April,'" Trelford wrote.

"And called them to heel. But it was Brasher, and his great friend John Disley, who drove it through. Because they had studied all the technicalities, they could counter every argument and objection."

Last week I spoke to Brasher's son Hugh, who took over as race director of the London Marathon in May 2012. He has had to demonstrate a similar command of detail and technicalities to establish an event in which, on the same day, elite fields will compete on a closed-circuit within St James's Park and a world record 45,000 others will independently run an app-measured marathon of their own.

I asked him if he thought his dad would have been proud of the way he had found a way to put on the 40th running of the race.

Almost without hesitation he responded that his father, who died in 2003, would have been proud of the London Marathon team, numbering around 80, which had, throughout the previous six months, "gone through so many different scenarios to keep the event alive, to inspire activity".

The London Marathon team has reaped the reward for its labours; that happy eventuality has not been the case for other equally dedicated outfits…

Speaking last Friday (September 25) to Tim Hutchings, co-founder of the Brighton Marathon that has run since 2010, it was not hard to feel the frustration brought about by that day's announcement that the event, even in its postponed and radically re-imagined format, could not go ahead because of coronavirus safety concerns.

This year the main mass of those taking part in the London Marathon - 45,000 of them - will run the distance independently, tracked by an app, on the same day elite racing takes place ©Getty Images
This year the main mass of those taking part in the London Marathon - 45,000 of them - will run the distance independently, tracked by an app, on the same day elite racing takes place ©Getty Images

Having postponed the race until September 20, the organisers had switched to a new format in which entrants would run 20 miles independently in the week, or even on the day before the race, and conclude by running the final 10km of the course on October 11 in socially distanced circumstances.

But the latest round of safety regulations announced by the Government last Monday (September 21) effectively ended the lingering hopes of saving at least part of this popular event.

"The team in the office have worked bloody hard for months to come up with a template that adhered to all the Government guidelines and all the running announcements and rules, which respected social distancing in the gathering areas, the start funnels, everything," Hutchings told insidethegames.

"And we could have made it work – with several thousand runners. We had a new start area. It was more or less the last 10k of our marathon route that we were going to put on.

"What we were going to put out was that we encourage all the runners to run 20 miles in the week leading up to Sunday October 11, either in one run or a couple of 10 miles or whatever format they wanted, and ideally a 20 mile run on the Saturday so they could turn up and run effectively what is the last 10k of the Brighton Marathon.

"And if they've run their 20 miles on Saturday they will be running on tired legs, so there's a few boxes ticked, and we can give them their Brighton Marathon medals for 2020.

"It all dovetailed quite nicely. We have actually had the template ready to go for five or six weeks. The City Council have been very good partners generally, but they have been deliberating for that time. Everybody was nervous about signing on the dotted line. Even though we had meetings with the Safety Advisory Group, which is police, fire, ambulance, and all the other relevant partners in the city.

"But nobody from the City Council would press the green button.

"On Monday Boris Johnson pretty much killed everything off – and we have been killed off.

"I'm livid in a way, because I know there is the rule about gatherings of no more people than six in force now, but frankly there are football matches going on all over the place where you get a goalmouth tussle with 20 players you could throw a blanket over. 

"There are plenty of gatherings of more than six going on in shopping centres and pubs and so on that are not respecting the rules per se.

"I think it is overly restrictive to deny the mass events industry – as long as they jump through all the correct hoops – the chance to carry on and exist. I am very disappointed about that."