Cecil Griffiths

Cecil Redvers Griffiths, born in Neath on 18 February 1900 where he lived until he joined the Army in 1918, is one of only four Welsh athletes to win an Olympic gold medal. The others being David Jacobs, Jack Ainsworth-Davis and of course Lynn Davies who to this day is Wales’ only individual Olympic gold medallist. During the course of his career, he set three British best times at 880 yards and 1,000 metres.

His eldest son still lives in Neath.

Remarkably at the time of his gold medal triumph in the 1920 Games, he was only 20 and remains to this day one of the youngest British athletes to win an Olympic athletics gold medal. There were no elaborate celebrations in those days for returning Olympic gold medallists. He returned to the UK immediately afterwards and the next day was back in work.

He won his gold medal as part of Britain’s victorious 4 x 400m relay team, held in Antwerp just after the end of the First World War, where he brought the British squad home in the lead at the end of the first leg in a time of 50.6 seconds. Aberystwyth-born Jack Ainsworth-Davis was also in the team. Griffiths was originally selected for the individual 400m but had to drop out due to illness and Ainsworth-Davis took his place finishing fifth behind British based South African, Bevil Rudd who won in 49.6, a time that Griffiths was easily capable of achieving, especially when you consider his performance in the following year’s Welsh Championships where he won the 440 yards in a Welsh record 49.8 secs.

Cecil Griffiths really was an astonishing athlete. His Welsh 440 yards record set when winning that 1921 Welsh title at Barry Island stood for a remarkable 32 years. Converted to 400m this performance is worth 49.5 and he recorded this time on a 330 yards bumpy grass track in Barry almost a century ago! The time would have been good enough to win the 2012 Welsh title – that’s how extraordinary Cecil Griffiths was. D.J.P Richards, writing in the History of the Welsh AAA in 1956 says of Griffiths: “…he is lightly built, but possesses an easiness of style that makes it appear as though he is blessed with boundless energy…”

He was a finalist at the AAA (UK) championships at either 440 yards or 880 yards for a remarkable nine successive years. This is an achievement that very few athletes have achieved. He won the half mile twice in 1923 and 1925; and finished third over 440 yards three times between 1919 and 1921. In 1919 he was only 19.

His finest race came in the 1926 AAA 880 yards when placing third in the epic race between Otto Peltzer of Germany and the double Olympic Champion (1924/1928) Douglas Lowe of Britain, which the German won in a UK all-comers record of 1:51.6. Lowe finished just three yards behind in an estimated time of 1:52.0, which was by far the fastest ever time recorded by a British athlete over the distance. Only winner’s times were recorded in those days, but a realistic estimate of Cecil’s time was 1:53.1 and this stood as unassailable to other Welsh athletes until the arrival on the scene of Empire Games mile champions Reg Thomas and Jim Alford in the 1930’s

In Fallowfield, Manchester in 1924 and 1925, he produced two brilliant performances winning the 880 yards handicap off scratch in 1:54.6 on each occasion. For some unknown reason, his winning time in 1924 was never ratified as a British record.

At the time only performances set in Britain were recognised as British records, and his 1:54.6 in 1924 should have been recorded as equalling the ancient British record of Francis Cross set in 1888 and the time recorded by Henry Stallard in winning the AAA title a few weeks earlier. Herbert Workman also ran 1:54.6 in 1901, but this was set in Montreal so couldn’t be ratified as an official record as it was set outside the UK.

So it remains a mystery as to why the performance was never recognised. One initial theory was that as the time was set in a handicap race it couldn’t be ratified. But this theory can be disproved as his great friend, Albert Hill’s British time in Glasgow was ratified as equalling Joe Binks’ 1902 World and British (amateur) record after being set in a handicap race in 1919 (4:16.8).  See the Evolution of British All-Time 880 yards Performances 1882-1940 at the end of this pen portrait.

A report in the News of The World of the 1924 Manchester race by Binks said that: "Griffiths has a beautiful action and in the last quarter showed tremendous speed. He managed to overtake his opponents in the last 10 yards".

Griffiths won ten Welsh titles in all, including five successive 440 yards titles between 1920 and 1924, and four half mile wins in 1922-24 and again in 1927. To underline his versatility, he also took the 220 yards title in 1921 on the same day that he won the 440 yards title in that Welsh record of 49.8. His wins in 1922 and 1923 came on the hallowed turf of Cardiff Arms Park.

We all remember Eric Liddell of Chariots of Fire fame who won the 400m in the 1924 Paris Olympics after refusing to run in the 100m as the heats were due to be held on a Sunday. But Cecil Griffiths was one of Britain’s top 400m runners at the time and should have been in Paris to challenge for the gold.

However, it was discovered by the AAA at the time of the team selection that he had unwittingly accepted a small prize seven years earlier as a 17 year-old whilst still living in Neath. Although reinstated by the AAA he was banned from international competition by the IAAF. John Hanna, the husband of Griffiths’ granddaughter, who is writing a biography of Griffiths, said that the AAA recorded in their committee meeting of 6 May 1924 that Cecil would not be selected for the Olympic Games team. This presumably was because of an IAAF ruling in 1923 which disqualified him from selection due to the breach of amateur rules back in 1917. John Hanna says that the reason for the IAAF ruling delay was a lengthy dispute involving member countries about the reinstatement as amateurs of professional athletes.

Think about it: if Cecil had been selected to run in Paris in 1924, Eric Liddell may not have been given a place in the 400m ……if that had have happened there would not have been a “Chariots of Fire” movie and no academy awards!

What is surprising, and further indication of his talent, is that in Stockholm later in 1924, despite the IAAF ban on international competition, he broke the British record for 1,000 metres when finishing second in 2:33.6 to world record holder Sven Lundgren of Sweden. Lundgren had finished fifth in the 1920 Antwerp Olympic 1,500. So what ban?………….more mystery!

He lowered his 1,000m British best to 2:31.8 at Stamford Bridge the following year, to bring his British best tally to three.

The IAAF could not have been aware of his 1917 misdemeanour in 1921 as he took part in England’s first recorded international match, against France in Paris. He finished second in the 400 and was part of England’s winning medley relay team. In the return fixture at Stamford Bridge in 1922 he won the 400m in 50.8 and finished second behind teammate Edgar Mountain in the 800. He returned to Paris the year before his non selection for the 1924 Olympic team winning the 800 in 1:57.0 and finishing third in the 400…………………. Who would be an athletics historian!

At the time, the regions of Wales were part of the various English Counties and this was probably the reason Griffiths ran for England – although having been a member of Surrey AC since his move over the border aged 18 may have qualified him to run. This strange governance situation was why Reg Thomas won the mile for England in the 1930 Empire Games. This situation prevailed until Wales, in the athletics sense, won home rule in 1948 with the formation of the Welsh AAA. However, a Welsh Commonwealth Games Council was formed in time for Wales to compete as a nation for the first time in the 1934 White City Empire Games, allowing Jim Alford to win his mile title in 1938 in the colours of Wales.

Cecil Griffiths died in 1945 of heart failure at the tragically young age of 45 on Golder’s Green Tube Station leaving a widow and two sons.

He is the very first person to be inducted into the Welsh Athletics Hall of Fame on a posthumous basis – such is the stature of this athlete. He truly is one of the all-time greats of Welsh athletics.

Note: Griffiths’ full name, date of birth and date of death have been previously reported incorrectly.

Clive Williams, 2011, updated 2013.

With thanks to John Hanna, Bob Phillips, Peter Matthews and David Thurlow.

Evolution of British All-Time 880 yards Performances 1882-1940

1:57.0

Walter George

4 Nov 1882

New York

1:57.0

Francis Cross

26 Feb 1887

Oxford

1:56.8

Francis Cross

24 Nov 1887

Oxford

1:56.4

Francis Cross

7 March 1888

Oxford

1:54.6

Francis Cross

9 March 1888

Oxford

1:54.6*

Herbert Workman

7 Sept 1901

Montreal, Canada

1:54.6

Henry Stallard

21 Jun 1924

London, Stamford Bridge

1:54.6*

Cecil Griffiths

8 Aug 1924

Fallowfield, Manchester

1:53.4

Douglas Lowe

11 July 1925

Cambridge, Mass, USA

1:53.2

Tommy Hampson

5 July 1930

London, Stamford Bridge

1:52.4

Tommy Hampson

21 Aug 1930

Hamilton, Canada

1:52.2

Godfrey Brown

17 Jul 1937

Princeton, USA

1:50.9

Sydney Wooderson

1 Aug 1938

London, White City

1:49.2*

Sydney Wooderson

20 Aug 1938

London, Motspur Park

* Handicap race won off scratch

Note: Douglas Lowe finished 2nd in the AAA Champs 1926, 3 yards down on Peltzer’s 1:51.6 so must have run around 1:52.0.Griffiths’ estimated time in 3rd place was 1:53.1. Official times were not recorded other than for the winner.

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