During the 1950s Wales’ outstanding athlete was undoubtedly John Disley. Born in Corris on 20th November 1928 he became Britain’s first world-class steeplechaser when he set four British records at 2 miles and five at 3,000m.
In September of 1951 Disley broke his own British and Commonwealth record for the 3,000m steeplechase, clocking 9:11.6 in a meeting at the White City, London, the home at the time of British athletics. Among those he beat was future Olympic champion Chris Brasher who was back in fifth place. Disley’s preparations for the following year’s Olympic Games in Helsinki were obviously going well. At those Games Disley was Wales’ only representative and was in the form of his life. He won the second heat with a huge improvement on his record, becoming the first British athlete to beat nine minutes. The final was a disappointment for him though and was won by the inspired American Horace Ashenfelter with Disley, despite another big improvement on his record, just being pipped for second place to take bronze. His Olympic medal was only the second to be won by a Welshman in an individual track event after Tom Richards’ marathon silver in the 1948 London Games. Only Colin Jackson has achieved this feat since. Later in the year he became the first Welshman to be voted British Athlete of the Year and also won the Welsh Sports Personality of the Year award in 1955 - Ken Jones was the first winner the previous year.
He went to the 1956 Melbourne Olympics as Britain’s number one, and despite running 8:44.6 he could only finish sixth in a race surprisingly won by his inspired friend Chris Brasher in a new British and Olympic record 8:41.2. Brasher went into the race as Britain’s third string, behind Disley and Eric Shirley. It was Brasher’s first win over Disley.
It was his misfortune and greatest regret that the steeplechase, held in 1930 and 1934, was not re-introduced into the Commonwealth Games programme until 1962 when his competitive days were over. In 1958 he was still good enough to be ranked second in the Commonwealth but was denied the opportunity of representing his country in this event. On home soil at Cardiff Arms Park, and in front of fanatical Welsh fans, he would surely have won the gold medal. Instead, as far as the Commonwealth Games were concerned, he had to be satisfied with competing in the one mile in Vancouver in 1954 (he finished fifth in his heat, but still bettered his own Welsh mile record by 1.2 seconds with 4:09.0) and the three miles in 1958 where he had to pull out with Achilles tendon problems.
The European Championships in 1950 (Brussels) and 1954 (Berne) were not happy occasions as he could only finish thirteenth and tenth respectively.
A schoolmaster, he ran for London Athletic Club throughout his career and, despite missing out on the chance of carrying the three feathers to victory in Cardiff, he gained 19 British vests between 1950 and 1957. Educated at Oswestry High School in Shropshire, he had never seen an athletics track until he went to Loughborough College as a student in 1946. Before that his running had been confined to annual cross-country runs and school sports.
Disley first appeared on the Welsh scene when he won the first of his four Welsh mile titles at the 1949 championships held at Abertillery Park in the undistinguished time of 4:32.0. But he went on to beat Jim Alford’s Welsh record set in the 1938 Sydney Empire (Commonwealth) Games, clocking 4:10.6 in 1953 and subsequently beat it on five further occasions to end with a best of 4:05.4 in June 1958. Strangely, he didn’t win a Welsh steeplechase title, but won three AAA steeplechase titles, including the 2 miles event in 1952, which was classed as a world’s best (9:44.0 secs). During his career, he set 18 Welsh records at 1,500m, mile, 3,000m, 3,000m and 2 miles steeplechase and 5,000m. His best position in the Welsh cross-country championships was second in 1955, in a race at Caerleon won by the late Lyn Bevan of Newport.
He was a member of the International Orienteering Federation (1972-78) and was a leading pioneer of the sport in Britain. He was awarded the CBE in 1979 for his work in outdoor education and was vice-chairman of the Sports Council (1974-82). His other claim to fame is that along with Brasher, he founded the London marathon in 1981, and today it remains as one of the great marathons of the world. He married UK record holder (220y 1949, and 100y 1951) Sylvia Cheeseman in 1958, who won three relay medals at major Games including a bronze in the 1952 Helsinki Olympics.
He was one of the first five athletes inducted into the Welsh Athletics Hall of Fame in 2007 and is a vice-patron of Welsh Athletics, the governing body of the sport in Wales.
Mike Walters and Clive Williams