Alastair Aitken
Alastair Aitken
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JOHN DISLEY THE UK'S OUSTANDING STEEPLECHASER OF THE 1950'S

JOHN DISLEY CBE (Born 20th of November 1928 at Corris, Gwynedd, Wales. Went to Oswestry High School)
   His first sporting love was mountaineering, more than athletics and he broke the record for the traverse of the Welsh 3000 foot peaks. He introduced the Sport of orienteering to the UK and he enjoyed cross-country skiing and even at 50 returned to atheltics with good runs in the Southern and National veterans cross-countries in the 'Over 50's'
" My life is puncturated with Challenges" he told me in 1979, when I talked to him in London and how right he was.
At that time he was Vice President of the Sports Council and helped Chris Brasher organise the First London Marathon that finished in the center of London. That followed the ' London Marathons'  organised by Highgate Harriers which started and ended on the track at Copthall Hendon. Of course they were run some years earlier in the late 1960's and early '70s. .
   He married 'Charming' Sylvia Cheesman, who obtained a bronze medal in the 1952 Olympics and was a former UK record holder for the 200m.
   John Disely was a well proportioned and impressive looking athlete.He always seemed to relish competition with a smile on his face, when he won so many races at the White City Stadium, as well as on the continent. Someone I will never forget seeing in action.
   1952 Olympic 3000m Steeplechase Final at Helsinki
    First Six:- 1 Horace Ashenfelter (USA) 8:45.4 (Olympic Record) 2 Vlaldimir Kazantsev (Russia) 8:51.6; 3 John Disley (GBR) 8:51.8; 4 Olavi Rinteenpaa (Finland) 8:55.2; 5 kurt Soderberg (Sweden) 8:55.6; 6 Gunther Hesselmann (Germany) 8:55.8.
   John comes in " The name you missed ut was Helmut Gude (Germany 8th in 9:01.4)-I don't think anybody had recognised Vladimir Kazantsev's World record because there was a suspect water jump. I am not sure! I thought Gude had the best chance of winning and I thought well I'll hang on to this man, watch what he does because he has got far more experience than I have and we will fight it out together over the last couple of laps. But I did not know that Gude had just had flu, was nowheare right from the start, so I was nowhere with him. It was only really when Geoff Dyson came down out of the stand with John Savidge to help him shout out with two laps to go. They sort of jogged me into consciousness then I ran hard as I could for the rest of the race. I think had the race been another 10 yards further I would have finished second, and if I had woken up earlier I might have challenged Ashenfelter, doing 8:45.4. which I think was the best of all time at that stage. I had not even broken 9 minutes"
   In my sports scrapbook I filled up with newspaper cuttings in the 50's I wrote 'John Disley 8 times Inter-Counties steeplechase Champion.' An event as tough to win as the AAA's in those days,.which he incidedntaly won won in 1955 & '57.
In 1955 he was 'BBC Wales Sports Personality' for the year.
As, so many athletes know the public judge you on you achieving Olympic medals rather than anything else BUT often people run at their peak bertween the Olympics.That could easily apply to John Disley I would think. John Disley was credited with  8:44.2 as UK record holder in 1955.
 He explains " I think the strange thing is that if you are running well no one is a very good competitor to you because you are going to beat them. It is very difficult to describe unless you have ever experienced it in your life.
In 1955 I was tottaly unbeatable and knew it, and it did not matter who they wheeled in. It was not a question of good or bad races. I just ran and at the bell I turned it on. I had the satisfaction of seeing people just fall behind .When you are not running well everybody is a good opponent because they all tend to beat you.  It is either being switched on or off. You have seasons when you are switched on and nothing can go wrong. I think distance running is a bit like that actually; if you are going to win you are going to win."
   1956 Olympic Final Melbourne A unique situation as Great Britain had all their three man team in the actual Final. The outsider of the three, who had only been running well for a month or six weeks before the 'Games', after being a runner up to John Disley so many times was Chris Brasher, who won the Gold medal but only after a disqualification was fairly quickly overturned.  It was alleged that he had impeded Larsen of Sweden but  because nobody had lost ground over it, he was reinstated and Victory was his!
   1 Chris Brasher (GBR) 8:41.2 (UK Record); 2 Sandor Roznyoi (Hungary) 8:43.6; 3 Ernst Larsen (Norway) 8:44.0; 4 Heinz Laufer (Germany) 8:44.4; 5 Semyon Rzhischin (Russia) 8:44.6; 6 John Disley (GBR) 8:44.6; 7th was Neil Robbins of Australia and 8th Eric Shirley (GBR).10 entered.
   "I had virus pneumonia six weeks before and Chris Brasher only beat me twice in something like 50 races we had  together. I just was not fit actually. I was quite lucky to get to the final. Even if I had won in Melbourne, which would have been nice to do, at the back of my mind--and it could be at he back of Chris Brashers' mind too-is that the best a steeplechaser in the World was the Hungarian Rozsnyoi "
   In the next text you will see how amazingly difficult the steeplchase was years ago!.
      " You used to do an interesting event that  is not run now, the 2 miles steeplchease, Was that a lot harder than the 3000 steeple?"
   In the March 1979 'Athetivs Weekly' article I did his answer was " It was a bit more than the odd couple of hundred yards. There was one more water jump for a start. It would not matter much nowadays quite honestly because of Tartan tracks. A tartan bottom to the water jump gives you a bit of cushioning, but you may remember that at the old White City when I was running there was a hedge and in the middle was a rail which your foot felt for, and if you were lucky and hit the rail, then you landed in a water jump which had a concrete base, which was about a foot underneath the regulation slope height and on top of that concrete slope there were lumps of sod put there for the race which looked great when you examined it, but the first time the field ran through that they smashed through the sods, as everybody lands more or less on the same place.
You were falling a foot further down when jumping, and you had a grass run up at the White City for many years, even to the water jump. It was a different race; possibly it was a second and a half to two seconds a lap more to run the steeplechase in those days than it is now."
Eric Shirley who was considered No. 2 British Steeplechaser behind Disley then but in front of Brasher, except for the Olympic Final, won his Sem-final in Melbourne in 8:52.6 but felt, because he had eaten all the lovely salads and fish in Australia before the event; food he had not been accustomed to before as he had been used to more or less poverty conditions in Kilburn. Therefore he found that because he had not  packed in any carbohydrates he was drained in the final.
Remarkable, Hillingdon AC runner, Eric Shirley at the age of 82 in 2011 was winning major veteran domestic Championships for his 'Over 80 age group category' That was over 800m!
    Looking back John Disley had this to say

   " Eric Shirley I think, probably had more physical potential than the rest of us put together but he never slept properly three or four days before an event. He worried himself out of his performances. Eric was a great runner."

Alastair Aitken

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