Track Stats - Sylvia Cheeseman
Wonderful times, travel, fun, friends. Never a false start. Always the chance to catch up
Sylvia Disley (née Cheeseman), winner of a record seven Women’s AAA sprint titles in the 1950s. Interviewed by David Thurlow. Published in “Track Stats” March 2009
The article that the 17-year-old VIth form grammar school girl read in the newspaper stated that the first postwar women's athletics championships were going to take place the next weekend. She was tallish, with an outstanding sprint talent, but had only run in a school relay team – a mighty successful one that had beaten every other school in the London area. Not surprising really because two of the team were to become Olympians.
The school girl rang a sports news agency that she found listed under “Athletics” in the phone-book and they gave her the number of the Women's AAA. The lady she spoke to was helpful. After telling her caller that the entries were closed for the 1945 championships she suggested getting in touch with the nearest club to her home in Richmond, which was Spartan Ladies. Within a year the girl was a winner at the Women's AAA Championships and on board the ship to Oslo to run for Great Britain in the first postwar European Championships. There, in the first heat of the first event on the first day, she was drawn against the great Fanny Blankers-Koen – of whom she had never heard – who brought out her starting-blocks. The novice watched in awe and amazement as she dug her starting-holes. She lost, coming 2nd in 12.8 to Fanny's 12.4.
Sylvia Disley (née Cheeseman), dark-haired, attractive, vibrant, loquacious and not looking her age, sat on the sofa in the upstairs lounge in the very pleasant home where she and her husband to whom she has been married for over 50 years, John Disley – Olympic steeplechase bronze-medallist in 1952 and co-founder with the late Chris Brasher of the London marathon – live near Hampton Court, in London, and talked. “I was very disappointed”, she remembers. “I didn't know who Fanny Blankers-Koen was. Later we became very great friends. She was a great one for one-upmanship. She would say she had hardly run, say, the 200 metres and her times were terrible, and then after telling this great big lie she would run a fantastic race”.
Sylvia was 5th in her 100 metres semi-final in Oslo (Blankers-Koen fell in the other semi-final) and then came 5th in the final of the 200 metres in 25.8sec. The British 4 x 100 metres relay team was 4th. For a school girl who had still to take the equivalent of GCE “A” levels, it was not a bad performance. It was her first trip abroad, and on the way out on the ship she had talked on the deck one evening to the legendary Sydney Wooderson, who would take the 5000 metres title in Oslo in the 2nd fastest time ever run. “I remember he said about the Olympic Games, 'I don't think they are all that they are cracked up to be', and I have always remembered that. I always think how right he was. Steve Ovett said the same, although he won a gold. You have to be lucky on the day. For every gold-medal winner there are scores of people who do not win. You have to be philosophical about it”.
Yet she is not. The one subject that she is reluctant to talk about is her participation in the Olympic Games of 1948 and 1952. She did not perform at her best, and that left her with the feeling that her athletics career was not properly fulfilled. That is a shame because her record is an excellent one, including a bronze medal in the sprint relay in Helsinki in 1952 as the superb all-star Australian team led by Marjorie Jackson dropped the baton when 100 per cent certainties for the gold, just as the German girls had done in 1936. “But the thing of which I am most proud”, Sylvia says,. “is winning seven WAAA sprint titles, and no one has done that ever since”.
Athletics started for her as a little girl – mother a concert pianist, father a bass player so good that Sir Thomas Beecham made him a founder-member of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, and a sister who was an international model – when she discovered she could beat all the other boys and girls when it came to running. When she won a scholarship to grammar school in Isleworth she decided that she could win the school athletics championship but was told at the age of 13 that she would not do so because the favourite was Doris Batter (who was also to run in the 1948 Olympics). Sylvia arrived late, knew nothing about racing, and just ran when the whistle was blown (yes, they used whistles in those days). Doris Batter went like the wind, but Sylvia caught her at 80 yards and won in the manner that she was always to do.
“It was the pattern for the rest of my career”, Sylvia says. “I always had the stamina to get ahead at the end. I just could not start until I was taught to do so. I was quite capable of falling over or getting my legs crossed. It happened once in the semi-final of the Women's AAA championships 100 when a man from our club kept shouting for me to bend my arms, which I did and fell flat on my face when the gun went! That's why I chose the 220 yards as my main event because it gave me the chance to catch up”.
When she joined the Spartan Ladies she was picked for the “B” race in an early-season meeting in 1946 on a wet thick grass track at Epsom. She turned up and ran in sixpenny plimsolls and a divided skirt – and won in a faster time than the internationals who had competed in the senior 100 yards. Later, as a competitor at the European Championships, she learnt two lessons: not to look round, as she had done at least twice, according to the journalist and former Olympic 100 metres champion, Harold Abrahams, and also that some of the female competitors had stubble on their chins and spoke in deep baritone voices. Two of those who beat her were later thrown out when the authorities brought in scientific sex testing.
In 1947 Sylvia passed her school examinations, although university was not an option for her because of the government policy of giving priority to men and women returning from the services. “In my last year at school, when I was head girl, we had a new games master – the school was co-educational – who had been in Africa during the war with Geoff Dyson, and he put me in touch with Geoff, who had just been appointed chief national coach”, Sylvia recalls. I went with him to Parliament Hill Fields track, in North London, to do an exhausting afternoon of circuit training, and he told me I did not know how to start. He was already coaching Maureen Gardner, whom he was later to marry, and he suggested that we apply for the games course at the Loughborough College summer school. In the afternoons, when the men had finished with the track, we had top-class coaching and Sandy Duncan taught me how to start. Since then I never had a false start in my career. I still cannot understand how people do it. There is no excuse for it. I was the first woman in the country to get starting-blocks, and I never had any trouble after that. I was also given spikes to replace my plimsolls”.
Another WAAA title, and then preparation for the Olympic Games
Having won the WAAA 220 yards in 25.7sec in her first year of competition in 1946, she retained her title the next year in 25.0 and was 2nd to a stubbly Frenchwoman in the GB match against France. Being coached by Duncan, a prewar GB long-jump international and one of the country's best Olympic managers of the future, meant her travelling across London and finding part-time jobs that fitted in. She tore a hamstring which took a long time to heal, but she prepared for the Games and won the WAAA 200 metres (not 220 yards) in 25.7 from Margaret Walker and Audrey Williamson. Yet at Wembley it was all different with Audrey getting the silver medal behind Blankers-Koen and Sylvia going out in the semi-finals. “I don't like to think about it”, Sylvia says. “I just did not do my best. Geoff Dyson used to say that it was 90 per cent perspiration in training, but 90 per cent psychology and only 10 per cent perspiration on the day. The Olympics have that extra stress. I was also a stone overweight, partly due to the hamstring problem”.
She considers 1949 to have been her best year. She had her tonsils removed and was working on the fringes of the newspaper industry in which she was keen to become a reporter. She was recovered from her injuries and won her fourth successive WAAA title in the longer sprint (25.4 for 200 metres) and also won the 100 metres to complete the double. She ran 2nd for England at both 100 and 200 metres in a match against Holland and France at the White City, beaten in both races by a Dutchwoman, Foekje Dillema, who was later identified as a man. Sylvia's 200 metres time of 24.8 equalled the British record set by Dorothy Saunders in 1937 and she may well have done another 24.8 for 220 yards a few days later when only Fanny Blankers-Koen's final stride managed to defeat her by inches at the Highland Games in Edinburgh. Fanny's time was 24.8, but Sylvia's was not reported, even though 2nd place to Fanny at 80 metres hurdles was timed in a Scottish record. In any case, Sylvia then improved to 24.5 in a club match a week after that and was in a record-equalling 660 yards relay team (2 x 220, 2x 110) and ended the year joint 2nd fastest in the World at 200 metres with the South African, Daphne Robb, to Fanny's best of 24.3.
Then came the incident which almost 60 years later still rankles.
Sylvia was selected for the England team for the Empire Games in Auckland in February 1950, and this meant a four-month trip sailing there and back on the “SS Tamaroa”, from which she sent progress reports to “Athletics Weekly”. The women's team manager was Mrs Ruth Taylor, a middle-aged lady and wife of a rich Northern industrialist, and she took an instant dislike to Sylvia, who she called “Cheeseman”, though referring to all the others in the team by their christian names. The result of her antipathy was a report to the WAAA accusing Sylvia and her friend, Doris Batter, of not being amenable to discipline, and the WAAA promptly suspended the pair for a year without a trial or the girls knowing what charges had been brought.
It led to an immediate appeal by the girls, and the two leading athletics officials of the time, Harold Abrahams (a barrister as well as an administrator) and team manager Jack Crump, set up a tribunal to hear all the charges and the evidence, with a chance to cross-examine. The tribunal found that the charges were “of very small significance” and that though there were faults on both sides Mrs Taylor took her responsibilities too seriously and her ideas of what discipline should be were “exaggerated”.
In the report which dismissed the charges, Abrahams and Crump stated quite clearly what they felt: “It is almost inconceivable that the General Committee of the Women's AAA should have entirely ignored some of the elementary principles of justice. They found that these two athletes were not amenable to discipline on the uncorroborated and unchallenged word of the Team Manager. No opportunity was afforded the two athletes of cross-examining or repudiating the statements of Mrs Taylor, and indeed they had no knowledge (until after they had been condemned and their punishment decided upon) of what the charges were”.
The matter caused an outrage at the time, and would still do so today. Sylvia remains very angry about what happened, and particularly because the WAAA would not tell her what the charges were, nor what the evidence was. Of her accuser she says, “She was an old battle-axe who took against me for some reason. She was a Northerner who hated all Southerners. I was always polite and obedient and stuck to her rules. I wanted to sue and to take legal action, but in those days we could not afford it. There was no money in the sport. We competed for fun”. It was not until August, five months after the team had returned from New Zealand and two months after the two athletes had been suspended, that the tribunal gave its verdict. You can read all of it in the issue of “Athletics Weekly” magazine for 5 August 1950.
The press asks, « Who is Sylvia? What is she? »
Sylvia gives examples of what the charges were: “She accused me of being on the deck in my dressing-gown and pyjamas with my swimmer boy friend, which was totally untrue. On another occasion we relay runners went on strike because she said that I was not to run the first leg but could not say which leg it should be. We stayed sitting down and no one talking for over an hour until Sandy Duncan came and had a word with her and the original order of running stayed. My case was helped, I think, because the press was on my side. They ran articles about me living at home with my mother, and my working for the ' Sporting Record' and later 'World Sports' before joining 'The Star' evening newspaper as a reporter, and being a clean-living, hard training twice a week, home-loving girl. And it was true”. She had her photograph on the front page of the “Daily Express” with the headline, “Who is Sylvia? What is she?”
She does, however, think there was a touch of revenge that left her out of the European Championships, even though she only lost her 200 metres title at the WAAA Championships by inches to Dorothy Manley (later Mrs John Parlett). “I had a throat infection and had a penicillin injection that morning from a doctor who told me not to run, but I did and only just lost”, Sylvia says. “They did not pick me. They were getting back at me”. In September she ran 2nd against France at 200 metres and won the Waddilove Trophy 100 yards just to show she was not finished.
In 1951 she had a good year, retaining her WAAA title, winning against France, and being in 4 x 220 yards/4 x 200 metres teams that broke the World record. One of these records was at Motspur Park in September running for her club and then came another at the White City a week later. “It was under floodlights, and I just loved running under the lights as it gave me a lift”, she enthuses. It was a good note on which to end a pre-Olympic season.
But things again went wrong in 1952, and after winning the WAAA title in 25.9 for 220 yards with a swollen knee her form had gone by the time she got to Helsinki for the Olympics. She went out in the 200 metres semi-finals in 24.7, though getting a bronze medal in the 4 x 100 metres relay, and then came wins against France and Italy in 24.7 and 25.0 and a share in another 4 x 200 metres World record as part of a Southern Counties' team late season under the White City floodlights. “I needed a sports psychologist that year”, she says. “I did think of becoming one later on because I think you need to have been in the sport in that position to do it really well. One of my daughters who took part in athletics, and might have done well if she had persevered, is training to do it now”.
That was really the end of Sylvia's career. She ran occasionally in the years that followed, but injuries to an Achilles tendon and a hamstring put paid to any chances of getting back to international level. In 1957 she married John Disley, and they have two daughters, each with two children. Sylvia's journalistic career took her as a freelance to China, to Paris for fashion shows, and all over Europe until she wrote a book about a dancer and retired. “I had some wonderful times, travel, fun and friends. It was good”, she concludes.
Sylvia Cheeseman's career:
The Women's AAA Championships
1946: 200 metres – 1 Sylvia Cheeseman 25.7, 2 Winifred Jordan, 3 Joyce Judd.
The World records
4 x 220 yards relay – Spartan Ladies' AC (Valerie Robins, Bettie Turner, June Foulds, Cheeseman)
The British records
100 yards – 11.0 (equalled record) London (Parliament Hill Fields), 2 June 1951.
1949 women's World Top Ten at 200 metres24.3 Fanny Blankers-Koen (Holland)
24.4* Daphne Robb (South Africa)
24.4* Sylvia Cheeseman (GB)
25.0* Audrey Patterson (USA)
25.1 Yevgeniya Sechenova (USSR)
25.1* Lorna McKenzie (Australia)
25.1*e Marjorie Jackson (Australia)
25.2* Margaret Walker (GB)
25.4* Shirley Strickland (Australia)
25.4 Zoya Dukhovich (USSR)
25.4 Deyse Jurdelina de Castro (Brazil)
Note: * 220 yards time less 0.1sec.