20 November 1928 – 8 February 2016
John passed away in hospital early this morning (8 February) after a short illness. He had remained an active member of the London Marathon family throughout its 35 years, even presenting Paula Radcliffe with her lifetime achievement award, named after John, after her final appearance in last year’s race.
Born in North Wales in 1928, John was a distinguished athlete in his own right, claiming the bronze medal in the steeplechase at the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki and setting five British records in the steeplechase, and four at two miles. In 1955 he set the world record for 3,000m steeplechase in Moscow. John’s future wife, Sylvia Cheeseman, also won a medal on the same day in Helsinki with bronze in the 4x100m relay. John set Welsh records at six different distances, broke the record for the traverse of the Welsh 3000ft peaks and in 1955 became the first chief instructor at the CCPR's flagship mountaineering and outdoor pursuits centre, Plas y Brenin.
Following an eye-opening visit with Chris to the 1979 New York Marathon, it was John who set about the daunting task of creating a route for the first ever race, using the Thames as a ‘handrail’.
In the 1960s, after competing in the European Orienteering Championships in Sweden, John returned to introduce this Swedish sport to this country, running a series of seminars in different parts of the UK. He enthused fellow Olympians Chris Brasher, Roger Bannister, Gordon Pirie and others about the activity, and subsequently John and Chris set up the British Orienteering Federation. Having successfully put on the World Orienteering Championships in 1976, the Disley/Brasher duo was a perfect combination of logistics and pure will to succeed. The result, when they turned their sights on staging a road race through the capital, was over 7,000 runners standing on the start line of the first London Marathon on 29 March 1981.
From those beginnings, the course John designed has evolved over the years and become a part of the fabric of the nation’s sporting identity. It is a testament to his vision that although London has been transformed in the last 35 years, the course of the London Marathon has predominantly stayed true to John’s original concept.
John put the huge success of the event down to the tens of thousands that follow the elite runners home each year.
“In this race, they all win, and every runner is regarded as important. That applies as much to Joe Jogger as to the elite,” he said. “The London Marathon has become an institution in a country where it usually takes centuries rather than decades to become a tradition….The police and the politicians can’t stop it now and that’s because of these magnificent masses.”
And, while his own athletic career hit the heady heights of Olympic glory, Disley held in higher regard his achievements in bringing the marathon to London. “There is only one London Marathon but there are hundreds of medals won at the Olympic Games.” More than anything, he was proud of the fact that the London Marathon raises more money for charity than any other one-day event in the world.
Nick Bitel, Chief Executive of London Marathon Events Ltd said: “John was the architect of the original London Marathon route. Every runner of the race since 1981 owes him a great debt for the vision he realised alongside Chris Brasher. The fact that we are celebrating our millionth finisher this year is a testament to the conviction John had that this would be an event to span generations of runners. He will be greatly missed by all of us at the London Marathon.”
Hugh Brasher, Event Director of London Marathon Events Ltd, said: “This is a very sad day for the London Marathon family. I have known John all my life and without doubt his attention to detail, patience and ability to get on with people from all walks of life meant that he and my father were a force to be reckoned with. He inspired so many people with his love of running and the outdoors and has left a legacy that is now part of the fabric of British society.”
John is survived by his wife, Sylvia, and two daughters. In an interview she gave in 2012 Sylvia said: “I think John has done more to get people running and on their feet than anybody in the country…The London Marathon has raised millions for charity. He never let the grass grow under his feet and didn't see why it should grow under anybody else's either!”