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09 June 2014
Neath's forgotten Olympian

Cecil Griffiths: Neath's Forgotten Olympian

A fascinating story emerged at a book launch to honour Neath's only Olympic gold medallist, one of only four men in Wales to gain this highest of athletics honours in track and field events. Cecil Griffiths, born in London Road in the town, gained gold in the 1920 Olympic games but missed out on the chance to add to his medal tally in the 1924 Olympics because of a cruel twist of fate. Griffiths - known in the family as 'Cec' - was a man who loved rugby as well as athletics and among the luminaries who turned out to honour the man on Friday 6th June were the Wales and British Lions rugby stars Roy Bergiers and J J Williams, together with Welsh athletics internationals, sport administrators and historians. Launching his book 'Only Gold Matters: Cecil Griffiths The Exiled Olympic Champion' in front of TV cameras at Neath's Castle Hotel, author John Hanna told an amazing tale of his relative's fluctuating fortunes which is worthy of a film script - which it might well become. In fact, Cec's story is intimately bound up with the award-winning 'Chariots of Fire' film as Griffiths, then at the height of his athletic prowess, should arguably have been representing Great Britain in the 1924 Paris Olympics depicted in that film. If Griffiths had been selected for those summer Olympics then Scotland's Eric Liddell, one of the two main characters depicted in David Puttnam's multi-Academy Awards winning film released in 1981, may not have been there.

What prevented Cec Griffiths competing at that Olympics was a ruling that he'd broken the amateur code by accepting payment for his running. This amounted to prize money of no more than £10 in total which Griffiths had won at an early age before athletic stardom beckoned. One of the races in question that caused his downfall took place at Neath Abbey. Here he had run for prize money in an athletics meeting in 1917 intended to raise funds for the local Battalion of the Glamorgan Voluntary Reserve, money put up by his own uncle, Major William Trick, a former Mayor of Neath, who commanded this Home Guard-type unit of the time. 

An ill fate seems to have dogged the life of this supreme athlete. His chances of an individual medal were scuppered in the 1920 Olympics when he suffered a stomach bug, perhaps caused by the less than satisfactory accommodation occupied by the British team in Antwerp at the time. In 1924 the Amateur Athletics Association ruled that he was ineligible to represent Britain at the Paris Olympics that year because he had taken money for running earlier in his career. Hanna in his book outlines the prejudice Griffiths suffered from the Oxbridge elite that then dominated the British athletics world. He pointed out that Harold Abrahams, the other athlete who is featured in the 'Chariots of Fire' film, was actually trained by professional coach which itself was not permitted at the time. Cec Griffiths was devastated by this ban which meant that he was only allowed to compete in domestic competitions and unable to represent the UK internationally. Clive Williams, the Welsh athletics historian who eloquently introduced the book launch, had little doubt that Griffiths would have won an individual medal of some sort to add to the gold that he had won as part of the 4 x 4 hundred metres relay team in the 1920 Olympics. Cec Griffiths later fell on hard times in the 1930s and had to sell off most of his sporting trophies and medals, save for his 1920 Olympics gold medal. He died early of a heart attack in 1945, aged just 45 and is buried in Edgware in London where he was working at the time. In May 2012 Griffiths was inducted into the Welsh Sports Hall of Fame. He was also inducted into the Welsh Athletics Hall of Fame in that same year, being the first to receive that honour posthumously. A number of his athletics records are outstanding especially when the conditions of the time are taken into account. His is a tale of a man who could have achieved so much more if fate had been kinder to him. His biographer made a plea for this sporting hero to be commemorated in his home town of Neath where to date his achievements have been little known. The book, which makes an excellent read and carries much local detail, is available from Chequered Flag Publishing, ISBN 9780956946058, price £11.99.

Jeff Griffiths

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