Olympic steeplechase bronze medallist John Disley left a rich sporting legacy which endured long after his own career at elite level. As co founder of the London marathon, he helped create an event which continues to inspire the participation of many thousands of all abilities.
He represented Great Britain twice at the Olympic Games. In the 1952 Games in Helsinki, he came home third in a steeplechase final won by American Horace Ashenfelter.
Four years later in Melbourne, he again reached the final of the steeplechase, placing sixth behind gold medallist Chris Brasher with whom he was eventually to found the London Marathon.
Born in the shadow of Snowdonia, he proudly wore the red vest of Wales in the mile at the 1954 Empire and Commonwealth Games in Vancouver though further medals eluded him.
He had studied physical education at Loughborough and came under the wing of legendary coach Geoff Dyson. In an era when the Olympic Games were open only to amateurs, he worked as a PE Teacher in West London whilst training for the Olympics.
Later he became Chief Instructor and Warden at the Plas y Brenin centre for mountain activities in North Wales and served as deputy chairman of the Sports Council. He took up orienteering, a sport he described as “a splendidly devious way of making a simple activity like running complicated and interesting.” He directed the 1976 World Championships, alongside Brasher.
He was made a CBE for services to outdoor education but his greatest legacy is the London marathon. Both he and Brasher were inspired by the New York Marathon and became convinced that London should also stage such a race. When it was first staged in 1981 it became an instant hit. After Brasher’s death, Disley continued as President of the race’s charitable trust and greeted the finishers with HRH Prince Harry at the finish line in 2015.
He once said “In this race they all win and every runner is regarded as important.That applies as much to Joe Jogger as to the elite.”
BOA Chairman Lord Coe said:
“John was an inspiration to us all. Not only did he dedicate years of his life to his sport, achieve a 1952 Olympic bronze medal, he brought athletics to everyone’s home as a co-founder of the London Marathon.
John’s passion for his sport was obvious to all who knew him, especially those he worked tirelessly alongside at the London Marathon and as Chair of the British Olympians Association. His indelible foot print will remain part of both running history and that of the Olympic Movement.
He was awarded an honorary doctorate at Loughborough University and as a long time member of the historic London Athletic Club, he attended their 150th anniversary celebrations in 2013.
He is survived by his two daughters and wife Sylvia, an Olympic bronze medallist in the 4x100m relay in 1952.
Credit: Phil Barker