UK Politics

First past the post: Olympians in politics

Baroness Grey-Thompson, Lord Coe, Sir Chris Chataway, Lord Glentoran (and driver), Sir Menzies Campbell

They are members of a remarkable team: people who have made the grade in two very different but highly competitive fields - sport and politics.

Sir Menzies Campbell may now be better known as a former leader of the Liberal Democrats, but he was once one of the fastest men on the planet.

He ran in the 1964 Tokyo Olympics in the 200m and 4 x 100m relay. He has kept his running vest and team blazer from the Games - and, at the age of 71, can still get into the blazer.

In the days before high-energy drinks, Sir Menzies relied on a pre-race cocktail mixed by his mother: "Switched eggs with hot milk, a dash of nutmeg, and believe it or not a small shot of brandy."

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Media captionSir Menzies Campbell on his unusual pre-race tipple

A BBC Parliament programme, First Past The Post, traces the history of politicians and the Olympics. Each time the Games have come to London, the key figure has been a parliamentarian - Lord Desborough in 1908, Lord Burghley in 1948 and Lord Coe in 2012.

Conservative peer Lord Higgins was a member of the British team in the 1948 London Olympics, which became known as the "austerity Games".

"The special diet was very simple," he tells the programme. "There was food rationing. Great trouble as far as the American athletes were concerned because their daily allowance of steak was roughly that for an English family for a month."

Lord Lucan may have other claims to fame, or infamy, but he set Britain's last bobsleigh gold medallist on his path to glory back in the late 1950s.

Thatcher boycott

Tory peer Lord Glentoran was introduced to the sport after a chance breakfast encounter in St Moritz with the moustachioed earl, who disappeared in 1974 amid suspicions he had murdered his children's nanny.

"He asked me if I'd ever thought of going bobsleighing, which I hadn't. Never even seen it. So he said 'Why don't you come up to the run this afternoon to the run and see what you think'. So I went up to the run and I found myself on a sled going down it."

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Media captionBaroness Grey-Thompson says she loves the Lords as much as athletics

Seven years later, with his driver Tony Nash, he won gold at the 1964 Innsbruck winter Olympics.

The political career of another Tory peer, Lord Moynihan, was almost over before it began after his opposition to the Thatcher government's boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics.

Becoming PM v winning gold

He was called in by Douglas Hurd, then a junior Foreign Office minister, to be told "in no uncertain terms" why the government did not want him to go. He even received letters telling him his parliamentary career was over before it had begun.

But he, and another future Tory MP called Sebastian Coe, defied their party to go to Moscow. Moynihan won silver as cox in the rowing eight, Coe won silver in the 800m and gold in the 1500m.

For sharp-elbowed politicians, the Olympic ideal - it's the taking part, not the winning that counts - comes second to going for gold.

"Once I got in there I just wanted to win. To hell with the taking part," says Lord Glentoran. "When I was asked by headmasters and people to go and talk to boys and girls on sports days and things in schools around the country they didn't like me for it, but, I said: 'Look guys, the winners are the people here today. This is your day and if you're not a winner forget it. That's what it's all about.'"

Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson won 16 medals at five Paralympic Games but says she now finds life in the House of Lords more satisfying. The crossbench (independent) peer says: "If it's possible I love being in the Lords more than I loved being an athlete.

"I never thought I would ever find something that would replace it.

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Media captionLord Glentoran recalls Lord Lucan's role in setting him on the way to Olympic gold

"For the whole of my career I thought there was nothing that would match up to that feeling of being an athlete, but it's a good feeling when you know you've had a positive influence on something, you've won an argument and you've encouraged people to think again - and you've made a change to a line of legislation that might affect 10 people's lives or might affect millions of people's lives.

"That's a pretty good feeling."

Politicians tell us that politics is about tough decisions, so which would they choose - government or glory?

Sports fans may be surprised to learn that none chose the latter. As Sir Chris Chataway, who competed at two Olympics before becoming a Tory MP, puts it with a chuckle: "I would have chosen Number 10. I was less likely to get to Number 10 than I was to have a gold medal at the Olympics".

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