Wales’ forgotten biggest athlete who was robbed of the prospect of immortality

Just over a century in the past, Cecil Griffiths had a glittering athletic profession forward of him. At simply 20 years outdated, he gained gold on the 1920 Olympic video games in Antwerp for the 4 x 400m relay, making him to today the second youngest of all British monitor and discipline athletes ever to win an Olympic gold medal.

It was no imply feat for the working class Welsh runner, who hailed from a poor household in Neath and had been headhunted by the extremely selective Surrey Athletic Club. A up to date newspaper article later dubbed him “the best runner Wales has produced” – a title which his household imagine he nonetheless holds to today.

But three years on from his precocious Olympic triumph, the runner’s full alternative to shine was cruelly taken away from him – all as a result of he had inadvertently damaged a rule for novice athletes as a youngster. The Amateur Athletics Association found that six years in the past, aged 17 and with no ambitions but as a runner, he had accepted a few kilos as a prize cash when working for charity occasions again residence in Neath. It was sufficient of a violation that the Association deemed him now not an novice, and banned him for all times from competing for Great Britain internationally within the sport.

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The ban robbed Cecil of additional Olympic glory on the pinnacle of his profession, because it was instated simply earlier than the well-known 1924 ‘Chariots of Fire’ Games in Paris. If he had been allowed to compete, there’s an opportunity he would have added to his Olympic medal tally. Just just a few weeks earlier than the video games, he had “comfortably” crushed his predominant competitor, Douglas Lowe, within the half-mile race, in keeping with his grandson-in-law and biographer John Hanna.

Cecil beating Douglas Lowe was in 1924 only weeks before the Paris Olympics from which he was banned
Cecil beating Douglas Lowe was in 1924 solely weeks earlier than the Paris Olympics from which he was banned

All Sports Weekly article on Cecil from November 1924
All Sports Weekly article on Cecil from November 1924

The ban did not cease Cecil from succeeding in races at residence. But the Great Depression of the Thirties noticed him lose his job in a manufacturing facility and for he offered his gold medals – save for his Olympic one – to offer for himself and his household. But his demise aged 45 in 1945 left his spouse in poverty, and it was by no means attainable for the household to boost cash for a gravestone on the Olympian’s grave in Edgware, London.

After researching Cecil’s life, John and his spouse, Vanessa – Cecil’s granddaughter – have set out to ensure he’s remembered. They have carried out this by telling his story far and broad, and, most not too long ago, lastly marking his grave, virtually 80 years after his demise. On May 13, a gravestone, with the Olympic rings and medal in gold leaf, was unveiled in a transferring ceremony on the spot the place the runner is buried at St Lawrence’s Church in Edgware.

John and Vanessa had initially began crowdfunding for the memorial in August 2021, and donations acquired the plan in movement. But Mossfords Memorial Masons in Cardiff stepped in and supplied to make and donate a gravestone, after listening to about Cecil’s exceptional story. The unveiling of the stone noticed Gwalia Male Welsh Voice choir sing the Welsh National Anthem, in addition to Cecil’s surviving relations – together with his great-great-grandchildren – in attendance to have a good time his life and achievements.

Gwalia Male Welsh Voice choir holding flags, as they flank John and Vanessa Hanna at the unveiling ceremony on May 13
Gwalia Male Welsh Voice choir holding flags, as they flank John and Vanessa Hanna on the unveiling ceremony on May 13

Vanessa Hanna, Cecil's granddaughter, next to his grave
Vanessa Hanna, Cecil’s granddaughter, subsequent to his grave

Explaining the choice to erect the gravestone after so lengthy, John mentioned: “When I first met Vanessa back in the late 1970s, there was always this tantalising information about her grandfather being an Olympic medal winner who had been banned as a youth for taking money. And this tantalising story stayed with me for lots of years”. A significant automotive accident through which John broke his again meant he had time on his palms to analysis the story – and he discovered it so fascinating that he determined to put in writing a e-book on Cecil’s life referred to as Only Gold Matters, revealed in 2014.

“As I found out about his life, I realise what an amazing man he was – what an amazing life he had, how badly he had been treated by the athletics authorities to be banned so early – and I wanted his story to be told. And in telling that story, I realised the situation could be redressed for him being forgotten – because he had been forgotten, by Welsh Athletics and by history.” John rectified this with the e-book, and made pledges inside it – to get a blue plaque erected for Cecil, a street named after him, and at last a gravestone for his grave.

John and Vanessa succeeded getting the plaque and road title in Neath, earlier than specializing in the grave. Their marketing campaign to ensure Cecil is not forgotten has seen Welsh Athletics induct him into their corridor of fame, and the runner’s story has grow to be extra recognized and appreciated by the nation and by athletics.

“I think it’s important all families have a tangible connection with their ancestors, and I think it’s even more important when their ancestors had achieved so much for their country,” mentioned John, including: “That’s why we’re so passionate about him being remembered because we we’ve righted a wrong. This came out loud and clear at the ceremony, last week. So many people said, ‘You have done so much to rectify the wrongs done against him.'”

Cecil great-great-grandchildren at his graveside at the unveiling ceremony for his headstone on May 13
Cecil great-great-grandchildren at his graveside on the unveiling ceremony for his gravestone on May 13

Cecil got here from a working class household in Neath and his father died when he was simply eight. A pure sportsman, he performed for the junior department of his city’s rugby membership. He left Neath to affix the Army in 1918, and it was this which kickstarted his working profession. “He realised he could run and he represented the army. And of course, it probably saved his life – because he won so many races for them, they didn’t send him to the Western Front, they kept him back in London to run for them,” defined John.

And so Cecil made a reputation for himself within the sport, and was snapped up by Surrey Athletic Club on the finish of the conflict – the dominant, all-conquering membership on the time, which cherry-picked all one of the best athletes. Part of his bundle was a brand new residence in London and a job within the membership proprietor’s shirt manufacturing facility, which he stayed working in all through his profession, till it closed down within the Great Depression.

Two years on, at simply the beginning of his profession, he achieved success most athletes solely dream of – a gold medal within the 1920 Olympic Games. He was integral to his relay’s staff gold medal, as he put them within the lead proper from the beginning, that means they weren’t hampered by the “brutal” first relay change which John says was like a “scrum” in these days as athletes jostled with one another to get into the suitable place.

The 1920 Olympic gold winning relay team. Cecil is on the far right
The 1920 Olympic gold successful relay staff. Cecil is on the far proper

“He is the second youngest of all British track and field athletes ever to win an Olympic gold medal. There are about 70 of them – he is the second youngest and only four of them are Welsh,” mentioned John. He thinks Cecil’s expertise of working on unkempt, muddy tracks and rugby fields in Wales served as an “apprenticeship” that put him in good stead for the “awful state” of the monitor within the Games.

It was simply the beginning for Cecil, who loved the height of his profession within the subsequent few years. “He ran incredibly for three to four years throughout the early 1920s – he broke many records. Some of his Welsh records for the quarter mile and the half mile set in the early 20s weren’t beaten until the late 1950s – 30 years those records stood. Nearly 15 years after he died were those records beaten.”

And so, he was on monitor to compete within the 1924 Olympics because the reigning half-mile British champion. But within the midst of the glory, tragedy struck – and, it appears, the choice to chop brief Cecil’s development, no less than on a global degree, was a calculated one. Explaining the context behind the ban, John mentioned that Cecil had taken half in “low-key” working races at charity occasions in his residence city. Such occasions had been placed on by native cities, who, anticipating an invasion by Germany within the center conflict, needed to elevate cash for their very own defence, as this wasn’t funded by the federal government.

“Cecil won three of those events, each winning a couple of pounds. Now, he could have accepted a prize – in those days, you could accept a prize to the value of seven pounds. But you couldn’t accept a penny cash,” mentioned John. Under the stringent guidelines of the Amateur Athletics Association, should you accepted cash for a sport at any level in your life – even should you had been a schoolboy, did not belong to any membership, and did not run on your nation – you had been liable to be banned from ever being an novice once more.

“He had no ambitions at that point of ever becoming a runner as a career – that was miles away, that was four years down the line,” mentioned John. Asked why the Amateur Athletics Association was ferreting round in Cecil’s previous six years later, John is sort of clear as to the unlucky cause.

“Because he was a working class lad from the Welsh Valley. He was beating the Oxbridge, and other university, upper class athletes. The Amateur Athletics Association was totally dominated, as were many sports, by the ruling upper class. That period of our history was extremely class-orientated and for Cecil to be beating upper class athletes – this working class lad beating these wealthy, privileged, upper class athletes – they didn’t like it. So they had to get him out of their hair.”

For Cecil, the choice was devastating, as is obvious from a poignant passage within the November 1924 All Sports Weekly article that hailed him was Wales’ greatest runner. “He collapsed when told this, and for weeks was positively ill in mind,” it reads. “In the circumstance, it is not surprising that he failed to run with his usual dash in the half mile championships of 1924.”

The ban stopped him from competing within the Olympics and different worldwide occasions, however not from competing solely. As John places it, he was allowed to run “in Great Britain, but not for Great Britain”. Even after the choice, he was nonetheless in a position to win some large races, notably the British half mile championship in 1923 and 1925. There are information of Cecil working till 1929, and his feats all through this era are a testomony to his standing as Wales’ – and probably Great Britain’s – greatest.

Cecil holding the trophy of Wales' victory over Achilles in 1929, which was a team of athletes from Oxford and Cambridge Universities. His lifetime International ban stemmed from him beating exactly this class of athlete - his Achilles' heel perhaps. This was practically his last race ever.
Cecil holding the trophy of Wales’ victory over Achilles in 1929, which was a staff of athletes from Oxford and Cambridge Universities. His lifetime International ban stemmed from him beating precisely this class of athlete – his Achilles’ heel maybe. This was virtually his final race ever.

“He was in the top three of the British Championships, in either the quarter of a mile or the half mile for every year between 1919 and 1927 – nine consecutive years in the top three at the British Championships,” mentioned John. “I have researched every athlete I can find in the modern era and historic era. I can’t find anyone that shares that statistic, even near that statistic.”

He was badly spiked within the British Championships at Stamford Bridge in London in 1928, inflicting him a foul leg harm, and he needed to be carried off the monitor, lined in blood. This was his final large occasion, and his profession tailed off quickly after. He misplaced his job within the manufacturing facility when the Depression hit within the early Thirties, and was pressured to promote his precious medals, a lot of which had been stable gold, with a view to preserve his household afloat. While his household nonetheless treasures a lot of his silver medals, the one gold one Cecil saved, which they nonetheless have, was his Olympic medal.

Cecil's gold medal from the 1920 Olympics
Cecil’s gold medal from the 1920 Olympics

“We don’t know whether that was because he valued it emotionally,” mentioned John, “or the fact that it wasn’t worth a lot of money in those days, because it’s not solid gold – it’s silver, and it’s got a thin gilt covering on it.” In the late Thirties, Cecil acquired a job with the coal board in London and labored for Navy, Army and Air Force Institutes in London, till his premature demise from a coronary heart assault in 1945.

“He was on his way to work there when he died – actually on Edgware station,” John mentioned. “What is very emotional for us is that just three or four days before he died, he wrote a letter to Vanessa’s father, arranging to meet him. They were going to meet at Paddington Station the day after he died. He’d gone to work that morning looking forward to meeting his son the next day.”

He continued: “It’s a very lovely and moving letter. It shows what a wonderful warm, caring loving man he was. That quality is passed down to Vanessa’s father and to Vanessa. I loved it about her when I first met her 50 years ago, and that’s never changed.” Though Vanessa by no means met her grandfather, she has a very sturdy emotional connection to him. Her father – Cecil’s youngest son – continued residing in Cecil’s home in Edgware after he died, and he or she was born in the home her grandfather had lived in, 9 years after his demise.

John says Vanessa, who has a uncommon terminal most cancers, has discovered the journey to erect the headstone extremely emotional. “Getting her to the graveside was really when the emotion kicked in. To really see that headstone, and be sitting their beside her grandfather’s grave was an immensely powerful moment for her.” In flip, this has been transferring for John: “I knew how important this was going to be for her to see this memorial finished, established, placed, and for her to appreciate it.”

Describing a current go to to Cecil’s grave because the unveiling ceremony on May 13, John mentioned the presence of the stone had modified the ambiance “completely”. He mentioned: There was the popularity of his lovely memorial stone, with all of the love and respect paid only a week in the past. That ambiance nonetheless lingered and can linger eternally for us once we go to that churchyard, as a result of we now know there’s a tangible memorial to him.”

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