Jim Alford

Champion middle-distance runner, respected coach and ambassador for British athletics

So sure was everyone that Jim Alford was going to win the gold medal in the mile at the 1938 British Empire Games in Sydney that, just before the start of the final, one of the Australian officials came up to him and whispered in his ear, "You've got it."

James William Llewellyn Alford, runner and coach: born Cardiff 13 October 1913; married 1941 Nina Vignali (two sons; marriage dissolved 1956); died London 4 August 2004.

So sure was everyone that Jim Alford was going to win the gold medal in the mile at the 1938 British Empire Games in Sydney that, just before the start of the final, one of the Australian officials came up to him and whispered in his ear, "You've got it."

The Welshman wasn't so certain, because he had been expected to win the 880 yards, yet finished only fourth. But there was no stopping him second time round, as he took the title in an Empire Games and Welsh record time of 4min, 11.5sec.

Alford's biggest rival was the Kiwi middle-distance favourite Pat Boot, who had taken the 880 yards gold medal, and he and the Australian Gerald Backhouse breezed past the Welshman just after the bell. Perhaps it was the effects of sleepless nights spent in a tiny cubicle on the Agricultural Showground close to the Sydney Cricket Ground - Alford was the only Welsh track athlete competing and the captain of a six-strong team that travelled to Australia by boat via Gibraltar, Rome, Bombay and Calcutta - that threatened his destiny, but he stormed back into the reckoning as the rush for medals hotted up.

"I remember thinking that if I relaxed and stuck to them at least I would get some sort of medal this time," recalled Alford after the race. He made his move as the local hero Backhouse, roared on by a big crowd on "The Hill", made his move to pass Boot on the final bend. Alford hit the front, completed the last lap in 61 seconds and stripped five seconds off his previous best over the distance.

Born in the Temperance Town area of Cardiff in 1913, Alford used athletics to define his life. Not only did he become a national hero for his gold-medal winning exploits on the track - he won both the 880 yards and the 1500 metres at the World Student Games in 1937 and captured 11 Welsh titles from 440 yards to cross-country - but he became one of the world's most travelled and respected coaches.

One of the favourites for gold in the 1500m at the 1939 European Championships, Alford could only finish seventh in the final and then found his athletics career put on hold by the outbreak of war. He served as a squadron Llader in the RAF, flying many missions over Germany to drop targets for bombing raids. He continued to run sporadically during the war - he clocked 4min 17sec for the mile in 1942 and 4min 15sec behind Sydney Wooderson in 1943 - and then won the Welsh Amateur Athletics Association 440 yards crown in 1946.

After the war he earned degrees at Cardiff University and Carnegie College of Physical Education in Leeds before moving into teaching and coaching. In 1948, the year he won the Welsh cross-country title for the first time, he was named as the first National Coach for Wales.

While coaching was his passion, it was also unpaid. His day job was teaching and he worked alongside the pole vaulter Geoff Elliott and the athletics commentator Ron Pickering at Wanstead High School in east London. He coached numerous Welsh international athletes, including the Olympic medallists Ken Jones and Nick Whitehead, the English Empire Games six-mile champion Peter Driver and the Commonwealth medallists Anne Farquhar and Gowry Retchakan. The 1956 Olympic 1500m champion Ron Delany, of Ireland, was also advised by Alford, who was still to be found trackside offering advice to athletes up to a week before his death at the age of 90.

Alford was the Welsh coach at the 1958 Commonwealth Games held in his home city of Cardiff. He then began to travel the world to spread the athletics gospel. First stop was Rhodesia, where he stayed for four years. He returned to Britain, and teaching, in 1962, but continued to travel around the world as a member of the IAAF Development Commission. He wrote a number of coaching books, including the landmark AAA instructional booklet Middle Distance Running and Steeplechasing (1951) and, in 1953, Sprinting and Relay Racing.

Robert Cole



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