Cover of John Disley Memorial pamphlet
On the afternoon of April 21, I was fortunate to have gone to the Memorial for the late John Ivor Disley. Anyone who has run the London Marathon or viewed the marathon has been influenced by Mr. Disley. To say that John Disley was a Renaissance man would be an understatement. The 1952 Olympic bronze medalist at the steeplechase was also a mountaneer, orienteer, husband, father, and co-founder of the London Marathon with the late Chris Brasher.
In 1981, there were 7,500 runners in the London Marathon, in 2015, there were 37,000 plus.
The Memorial for John Disley, who died February 8, 2016, was held at All Hallows-by-the-Tower Church. (For Americans, the Church should be known as the place that George Washington, our first American President, was christened. )
The memorial was a celebration of Mr. Disley’s life and loves. While I knew of his athletic exploits, I wasn not familiar with other fascets of his life.
Reverend Bertrand Olivier, the vicar who presented the memorial, noted that John Disley and his wife, Sylvia, had come to many of the London Marathon services held on Saturday before the marathon, for more than a decade. Reverand Olivier also noted that Mr. Disley’s influence on the good Reverand was strong: the Reverand would be running his twelfth London marathon, thanks to the support of John.
One of John Disley’s daughters, Kate Disley read a poem from William Stanley Gwynn Williams, telling the audience about how her father had spent much of the last decade of his life rebuilding a small church, where he is buried. I found that somehow fitting of a man who did so much in his life.
A touching and affectionate address by Roger Orgill noted John Disley’s love of mountaneering. Chris James spoke about John Disley’s time in Orienteering, and his influence in the sport in Great Britain.
About this time, I began to consider the colorful life that the thoughtful Welshman (Steve Jones, a man from Wales himself, noted that fact to me), who was mountaneer, orienteer, fine athlete, father, husband and co-founder of the London marathon.
His second daughter, Emma Disley, read ‘To an Athlete Dying Young’, from A Shropshire Lad (1896), by A.E. Houseman. The poem spoke of much of the life and spirit of the man who was constantly doing something. It was from the poem, that John Disley and Chris Brasher found the name for their company, “Fleet Foot”.
It was in the address by Hugh Brasher, son of late Chris Brasher, and Race Director of the London Marathon, that I learnt the most about Mr. Disley.
John was the 1952 Olympic bronze medalist in the steeplechase, just behind a Russian in the silver and an American, Horace Ashenfelter, in the gold position. At that same Olympics, on the same day, the future wife of Mr. Disley, (nee Sylvia Cheeseman), won a bronze medal in the 1952 Olympics. For Sylvia, her medal came in the 4×100 meter relay.
Later, John Disley paced his friend, Chris Brasher to the Olympic qualifying time for the 1956 Olympic steeplechase. Disley was ill in 1956, and Chris Brasher went on to take the gold medal.
Hearing this part of Mr. Disley’s life from the son of Chris Brasher, was tremendous. Hugh Brasher spoke of both his father and Mr. Disley with much affection and some emotion. He noted that while his father was a quick to speak and a fast cloud of energy and emotion, Mr. Disley was the peacemaker. Mr. Disley’s attention to detail was key in the success of the Brasher and Disley relationship and their journey with the London marathon.
Chris Brasher made the point that the discussion of the London marahton began with a talk in a pub, then a visit to the New York City marathon in 1979, and the first race in 1981.
I met Mr. Disley a few times, and found him fascinating. He was an understated as many of our marathon friends are overstated. In researching his life, I was taken by the full life that Mr. Disley lead.
A reception held afterwards had many of the greats of the sport in GBR: from IAAF President Sebastian Coe, to WR holder Paula Radcliffe, to former Race Director David Bedford, to London winner Veronique Marot, to 1984 Olympic silver medalist Wendy Sly, new publisher of Athletics Weekly.
In closing this piece on this fine man, I would like to quote Reverand Bertrand Olivier who noted Mr. John Disley as the “Welshman who got Britian running.”
Well said and well done, Mr. John Disley. You have changed nearly one million runners lives.