Clive Williams looks at the remarkable achievements of one of the UK’s finest athletics administrators
John Lister, who died on May 6 aged 81, was one of Britain’s leading athletics administrators and innovators and one of the architects of the structure of the modern-day sport in the UK.
He was a remarkable man who was just at home serving his club, where he was treasurer for almost 40 years, as occupying the same role for the UK governing body. He was the UK representative on the governing body of European athletics for 12 years and was awarded the MBE in 2010 for his services to athletics.
John will go down in UK athletics history as the man who put the proposal on behalf of his club, Cardiff AAC, to the AAA AGM in 1982 for a single governing body to govern athletics in the UK. At the time all of the various branches of the sport in the UK were governed by separate bodies.
The proposal was overwhelmingly approved but it took another 10 years before the new UK governing body – the British Athletics Federation (BAF) – became operational. So Cardiff AAC – and indeed athletics in Wales – were in the vanguard of organisational change in a sport that had been largely unchanged since being codified a century earlier.
On hearing the news of his death the former UKA President and 1964 Olympic long jump champion Lynn Davies said: “John was a personal friend and an uncompromising leader and administrator and the sport of athletics in the UK and indeed Europe has lost an exceptional pace-setter who devoted his life to our sport.”
He continued: “John was also a very generous person, and I was very grateful when, along with another Cardiff businessman in 2014, he paid for Ralph Boston, the 1960 Olympic Champion and former world record-holder to come to Cardiff to help me celebrate the 50th anniversary of my Tokyo win.”
In 1986 John became treasurer of the AAA which at the time governed the sport in England and Wales. He held this post until BAF was formed in 1991, holding the treasurer position until 1996. Interestingly at this time, his Cardiff club colleague the late Bill Evans was chair of the AAA and then of BAF, so effectively two members of the Cardiff club were two of most important officials in UK athletics. Underlining the commitment of both to grassroots athletics, they could often be found serving in the club’s canteen!
In 1995 John was elected the UK’s representative on the European Athletics Council and held this role with distinction for 12 years. He eventually became chairman of the marketing and communication committee and in this role he was the lead official in the delivery of the 2002 (Munich) and 2006 (Gothenburg) European Championships. He stood down from his European role in 2007 and as a mark of his service was awarded the status of European Athletics Honorary Council Member. World triple jump record-holder Jonathan Edwards replaced him as the UK’s representative.
On retiring from his European activities he was awarded the MBE for his services to athletics and became only the second Briton after the late Sir Arthur Gold to receive the IAAF Plaque of Merit at the 46th IAAF congress in Osaka during the 2007 World Championships. Both awards were made in recognition of his contribution to athletics as a competitor and administrator at club, Welsh, UK and European level for almost half a century.
Originally a member of Birchgrove Harriers, which he joined when a pupil at Cardiff High School, he was one of the prime movers for the amalgamation of the two Cardiff clubs – Birchgrove and Roath Harriers to form Cardiff AAC in 1968.
He led a small working group which produced the “Birchgrove Report” a year or so before the amalgamation which became the blueprint for the new club and indeed many other new clubs in the UK. The new club just failed to win the British League title in the first year of the league in 1969 before going on to win the league title for three successive years between 1972 and 1974.
John was one of the leading lights in the formation of the league and indeed, one of the star performers in the Cardiff team which became Britain’s top club by taking the British League title, winning the Pye Cup in 1973 and becoming the first British club to compete in the European Clubs’ Championship in Belgium in 1975.
Showing his administrative skills at a relatively young age when still competing at a high level, he had to hurriedly hand write the first British league constitution in 1969 to formalise matters just before the first ever league match took place in Twickenham in May 1969 with newly formed Cardiff in the top division.
As an outstanding athlete he first hit the headlines setting a new Welsh high jump record aged 19 in 1961 which made him the leading performer for his age and the fifth best overall in Britain that year. He went on to win 12 senior Welsh and several junior titles. His senior wins were four at 120 yards hurdles, two at 220 yards hurdles, four at high jump and two at decathlon. Although a fine all-rounder, he disliked the pole vault in the decathlon and often he would high jump higher than he could achieve in the vault. Indeed, he no-heighted in one Welsh decathlon championship but still won the title!
John competed in the famous 1965 duel in Cardiff between Davies and the man he beat in Tokyo, the 1960 Olympic champion Ralph Boston. John finished fourth with 7.21m, a distance that would have won him the Welsh title last year. And that event was probably his fourth best event – and he achieved that leap off a cinder run-up almost 65 years ago.
It was largely as a result of John’s endeavours and a small number of other Cardiff officials, including the late Don Robinson, that the first Leckwith track was built in the late 1980s. This replaced the outdated Maindy Stadium which had closed almost 20 years earlier meaning that the Cardiff British league team had to hold their home fixtures in Cwmbran.
He then led the discussions with Cardiff City Council on behalf of Cardiff AAC for the transfer of the club’s headquarters from the old Leckwith Stadium to the new athletics facility across the road, which now as Cardiff International Sports Campus, is the HQ of Welsh Athletics (WA) the governing body of the sport in Wales.
James Williams, the CEO of Welsh Athletics and a former Cardiff captain and British league team manager, said: “The contribution John made to the sport across the UK was immense, it is not an understatement to say that there would be no Welsh Athletics Ltd without the work undertaken by John in the 80’s and early 90’s to establish the British Athletics Federation, the precursor to the current governing body UK Athletics. It is testament to his passion for the sport that at the same time he was on the council of European Athletics, he was also an ever present in his club Cardiff AAC.”
He added: “During my time with the club, I would often enjoy our discussions about the future of the sport, and he was always ready to offer support and advice to any budding club officer. John will go down as one of the most influential people in the sport of athletics, and the impact of his work will be felt across the whole of Europe.”
As well as John’s near 40-year stint as Cardiff club treasurer, he had been club captain, chairman and president. He was awarded the Welsh AAA Award of Honour in 2009 having been a member of the Welsh AAA executive committee for almost 11 years during the 1960s and early 1970s while still competing.
John officially retired as a competitor aged 32 and turned full attention to the administrative side of the sport, and as a chartered accountant he was ideal for the various roles that came his way. In private life he was a very successful businessman and showed enormous energy to fulfil his many athletics roles whilst still running his successful business.
He juggled his business life, competitive career and administrative roles with great skill, in an era where there were no professional athletics administrators and where all front-line roles were performed by volunteers.
In 2011, he produced a book, Athletics in the United Kingdom – the rise and fall of the British Athletics Federation which recounts the tortuous battles he and others had with the then governing bodies in the UK to modernise the sport.
The book is a lasting epitaph to one of the UK’s outstanding athletics visionaries, the like of whom we will never see again.
Former Welsh decathlon and 400m hurdles champion Derek Fishwick summed-up John’s immense contribution to our sport, saying: “John was not always the most popular figure, because of his direct and business-like approach. But beneath that cool exterior was a man who was more effective, ambitious and generous than anyone I ever knew in the sport of athletics.
“It is hard to think of a Welshman who made a bigger impact on our sport at every level. He was a big hitter and an all-rounder in every sense of the word: A talented multi-eventer; a loyal clubman; a representative of the sport at the highest level; and a committed leader through many decades.”
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