James Alford

James Alford

"James Alford"' (b. Cardiff, Wales) was a Welsh track Athlete. In 1938 Alford won the mileEmpire Games gold medal in Sydney, becoming the first athlete in a Welsh vest to strike gold in the Empire Games. He won 11 Welsh titles in disciplines ranging from the convert|440|yd to cross country. He became first National Coach for in Wales in 1948.

A member of the Welsh Sports Hall of Fame.


* [http://ffaith.brynmawrscene.net/index.php/Jim_Alford Ffaith]

Jim Alford (Roath Harriers), by Clive Williams

There is no doubt that Jim Alford is one of the finest athletes produced by Wales. Born in Cardiff on 15th October 1913, and winner of the mile in the 1938 Sydney Empire Games in a Games (and Welsh) record of 4mins 11.5secs, he won eleven Welsh track titles ranging from convert|440|yd|abbr=on through to convert|3|mi|km, represented Great Britain on five occasions and won the 800 m and 1,500 m at the World University Games (the forerunner of the World Student Games) in Paris in 1937 - the latter in a lifetime best. He also finished seventh in the 1938 Paris European Championships 1,500 m. In one of his rare excursions over the country he finished 40th in the 1948 International Cross Country Championship in Reading, after winning the Welsh title at Cwmbran on March 6th, although he thought he had done enough to be selected after finishing 6th in 1935, but the selectors didn’t think he was experienced enough to run!

His competitive career, remarkable for its longevity, ended in 1948 with his final Welsh title when he won the mile at Port Talbot in June ahead of a “youngster from north Wales” - as Jim put it. That 19 year-old youngster turned out to be another all-time great of Welsh athletics - John Disley.

Jim’s Welsh Track Championships wins are as follows:

1934 ½ mile 1:57.0 Rodney Parade, Newport1935 ½ mile 1:58.0 Rodney Parade, Newport Mile 4:27.4 Rodney Parade, Newport1936 ½ mile 1:56.4 Rodney Parade, Newport1937 ½ mile 1:57.4 Crymlyn Burrows, Swansea1938 ½ mile 1:58.0 Taff Vale Park, Pontypridd Mile 4:23.0 Taff Vale Park, Pontypridd1946 440 yds 54.0 GKN Ground, Cardiff ½ mile 2:03.4 GKN Ground, Cardiff1947 3 miles 16:15.0 Pontypool Park, Pontypool1948 Mile 4:33.0 Talbot Athletic Ground, Aberavon

His mile win on the grass track of Sydney Cricket Ground on 12th February 1938 was undoubtedly his finest performance - but he went into the Games as the favourite for the 880 yds. As Jim told David Thurlow in Track Stats, the quarterly historical and statistical publication of the National Union of Track Statisticians: “ I was so certain to win the 880 yds that one of the judges came up to me at the start, shook me by the hand and said, “You’ve got it!” However, Jim was not at his best, due to the humid conditions and a sleepless night in a tiny cubicle on the Agricultural Showground, just yards away from where a speedway meeting was being held. Despite clocking a personal best of 1:53.0e in his heat, he slumped to fourth in the final after lying second at the bell. Pat Boot of New Zealand won clocking 1:51.2 secs.

In the mile, it was a completely different story. Jim was leading with a lap to go in 3:10.6, but the Australian Gerald Backhouse and Boot came past. Jim says: “ I remember thinking that if I relaxed and stuck to them at least I would get some sort of a medal this time”. Jim hung on and as Backhouse went to pass Boot on the last bend, he passed both to take the lead and went on to win in 4:11.5 after a sizzling last lap of 61 secs. His winning time was an improvement of 5.6 secs over his previous best of 4:17.1 set when beating the 1930 Empire champion, and fellow Welshman Reg Thomas at Taff Vale Park, Pontypridd the previous year. Jim’s winning time also beat Thomas’ Welsh record of 4:13.4 set when clocking a British record in 1931. Backhouse finished second in 4:12.2 with Boot a further 0.4secs back in third to win his second medal of the Games. Jim’s time was an Empire Games record, beating 1936 Olympic Champion Jack Lovelock’s winning time of 4:12.8 set in London in 1934. Afterwards Jim said that he could hear the spectators on “The Hill” shouting loudly for their man (Backhouse). “I could feel the hairs standing out of the back of my neck with nervousness. It was the first time I had experienced anything like it,” he told Thurlow.

As cash was so short in those days, Jim went to Sydney as the only Welsh athletics competitor and was the “chief cook and bottle washer” of the overall Welsh team, as captain and manager. In his formal report to the Empire Games Council for Wales on his return, he lauded the performance of the six strong team from boxing, cycling and swimming (two gold and a silver) but complained that whilst the team had the “most striking uniform on parade, but on the track, in the swimming pool and in the ring it was a different matter” Apparently, Wales were the only team not to be provided with a distinctive track suit or with team badges! This situation no doubt stemmed from the fact that the Central Council of Physical Recreation had given Wales just £200 to send the whole team - although this amount was bolstered by an appeal, which raised much needed additional sums, and a small grant of £240 from the Australian organisers. Another indication of the cash shortage at the time was that Jim remembers Cyril Howell, soon to become one of the architects of the formation of the Welsh AAA in 1948, loaning him £20 for pocket money for the trip, although the South Wales & Mon AAA covered all other costs for Jim.

Dennis Reardon was also a gold medal winner for Wales in those 1938 Games taking the middleweight title in boxing. Some time after the Games, Reardon was in conversation with Col Harry Llewellyn, who won a show jumping gold medal in the 1952 Helsinki Olympics. On seeing the gold medal in a case behind the bar of the pub Reardon was running in Rhoose, Harry reminded Dennis that he had won the gold in 1952. Dennis’s retort was: “Yes, but you had a bloody horse to help you!” So with someone of Dennis Reardon’s sense of humour in the team, the long sea trip out to Australia via Gibraltar, Rome, Bombay and Calcutta was obviously a pleasant, if tiring occasion. Although, along with members of the English and Scottish teams who also travelled on the ship, Jim trained for at least an hour a day, but he still put on half -a- stone in weight. Altogether, the athletes were away for four months, of which three were taken up on the sea voyage.

After his Sydney victory, Jim went into the first European championships in Paris as one of the favourites for the 1,500 m, but could only finish 7th in 4:03.0.

Surprisingly, his only race against the 1930 Empire Mile Champion Reg Thomas was in a special handicap race on 21st August 1937 during the Glamorgan v Monmouth inter-county meeting at Taff Vale Park, Pontypridd. It was billed as an attempt on the Welsh record by Thomas, who was 6 ½ years older than Jim. Welsh records at the time had to be set in Wales, but Reg had a best at the time of 4:13.4 set in 1934, the current British record. It turned out to be one of the finest mile races seen in Wales up to then. Almost 70 years later, Jim remembers the race well: “Originally, I was to have a 20 yards start, but I was running well at the time and was having none of it. I said that unless I started off scratch with Reg, I would not run. The officials relented and we lined up together. Reg led me from the gun (others with starts were ahead) on the 400 yds grass track, but I took over on the second lap, but Reg was leading at the bell. At this point I felt quite strong and went into the lead and went further and further away to win by about 5 secs. I think my last 440yds was in the region of 60 secs”. Jim’s time was a personal best of 4:17.1, which he was to slash by 5.6 secs to win the Empire title the following year, and was just one tenth better than the “Welsh record” set by Reg when winning the Welsh title in Abercarn in 1933. So the record attempt succeeded, but the wrong man won!

Like so many of his contemporaries, the Second World War cut short his competitive career. He served as a Squadron Leader pilot in the RAF, but still managed to run times of 4:17.0 for the mile in 1942, and 4:15.0 behind Sydney Wooderson in 1943. He ended his career with personal bests of 1:53.7e for convert|880|yd|abbr=on set in the heats of the 1938 Empire Games; 3:56.0 for 1,500m (World Student Games gold in 1937) and his 4:11.5 for the mile set when winning in Sydney. He also made five appearances in a British vest.

After the war, and having obtained degrees from Cardiff and Bristol Universities, he moved into coaching and became the first National Coach for Wales in 1948. The Welsh AAA minutes of 17th November 1948 in confirming his appointment said that clubs were to be circularised setting out the terms of his engagement and inviting applications for his services. He coached numerous Welsh international stars including Olympic and Commonwealth Games medallists Ken Jones, Ron Jones, and Nick Whitehead. He also coached the 1954 Empire Games convert|6|mi|km champion, Peter Driver of England, and Commonwealth medallists, Ann Farquhar - Kinch (1970 javelin silver) and Gowrie Retchakan (400m hurdles silver in 1998). 1956 Olympic 1,500 m champion, Ron Delany was also advised by Jim, who remarked in 1954: “Because of lack of facilities, his training was almost entirely on a fartlek principle. He brought his 1954 800m time down from 1:58 to 1:50.6 on this principle”.

Liz Johns (nee Parsons), the first Welsh female sprinter to be successful on the British stage was also coached by Jim, as were numerous other Welsh stars, including in his early days, 1957 AAA decathlon champion, Hywel Williams. Jim was the Welsh coach at the 1958 Cardiff Empire Games and shortly afterwards he was appointed coach to Rhodesia and Nyaserland. He returned to Britain in 1962 and continued as a schoolteacher until his retirement, also undertaking special coaching assignments throughout the world as a member of the IAAF Development Commission. He is the author of numerous coaching books including the landmark AAA instructional booklet on Middle Distance Running and Steeplechase (1951) and further AAA/BAAB booklets on Sprinting and Relay Racing (1953 and 1959). He is still active as a coach at the age of 87 in 2000, and when this writer last spoke to him early in that year he was as lucid as ever. He is one of the legends of Welsh athletics. He died on 5th August 2004.

(This article first appeared in The History of Welsh Athletics, published in 2000)

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