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A black and white photograph of four men competing in the 100 yards race. ;

Alumni Voices: The life of pioneering Olympics athlete and King's alum Jack London

At the 1928 Amsterdam Olympic Games, King’s medical student Jack London became the second British athlete with Afro-Caribbean heritage to win an Olympic medal. Anindya Kundu tells us about Jack’s extraordinary career and life…

Jack London, a man of Afro-Caribbean heritage, smiles at the camera, wearing a white shirt and blazer.

Jack London wearing his 1928 British Olympic team blazer
Credit: PHA/8/2/90 ©University of Westminster Archive

John Edward – or ‘Jack’ – London was born in British Guiana (now Guyana) on 13 January 1905. He studied at King’s College London from 1923-1929 and he was Britain’s pre-eminent sprinter from the mid to late 1920s. He has a special place in UK sporting history as he was the second British athlete with Afro-Caribbean heritage to win Olympic medals.

Olympic success

At the 1928 Amsterdam Olympic Games, he gained the silver medal in the 100 metres and a bronze medal in the 4 x 100 metres relay. In a semi-final of the 100 metres, Jack recorded a spectacular time of 10.6 seconds, which equalled the Olympic record for this event, and he beat a field of highly talented runners. His time in that semi-final was just 0.2 seconds slower than the then world record for the 100 metres.

In the final, he had to put up with two false starts by other finalists. Once the race was under way, he covered the first 20 metres a bit slowly. Then he channelled a tremendous effort into his sprinting and he finished just two feet behind the winner, Percy Williams from Canada.

In the 4 x 100 metres relay final, a determined run by Jack on the last leg enabled the British team to secure the third place.

A black and white photograph of four men competing in the 100 yards.

Jack London competing for the Polytechnic Harriers in the 100 yards at the Amateur Athletics Association Championships
Credit: PHA/8/1/3/159 ©University of Westminster Archive

UK athletics success

In the UK, Jack was a highly active competitor and his achievements were equally impressive. He won a total of 11 titles as a University of London athlete in inter-varsity competitions, and he also gained victories in the Southern Counties and Middlesex Championships. At the 1929 Amateur Athletics Association Championships, Jack won the 100 yards title.

Versatility was certainly one of Jack’s strengths as an athlete. He also excelled in the high jump and he competed in the shot put.

During the early part of his athletics career, Jack received guidance from the acclaimed coach, Sam Mussabini, who had worked with another great athlete, Harold Abrahams, winner of the 100 metres at the 1924 Paris Olympics. Jack was also a member of the renowned athletics club, the Polytechnic Harriers, which was linked closely with Regent Street Polytechnic, and he trained with its fine sprinters.

Regent Street Polytechnic showed its deep appreciation of Jack’s accomplishments in athletics by awarding him the prestigious Studd Trophy in 1928. Following the death of Mussabini, the Harriers presented a Memorial Medal, named in Mussabini’s honour, to Jack.


As well as competing at the highest level, Jack was something of an innovator. He was the first British sprinter to utilise starting blocks. This forward-thinking approach to sprinting marked a significant break with the older custom of sprinters placing their feet in holes dug behind the starting lines in the cinder tracks.

Jack’s association with Mussabini, his membership of a top-performing athletics club and his adoption of starting blocks demonstrate the seriousness with which he took sprint training. At this time, the athletics establishment in Britain still preferred the notion of the ‘effortless amateur’, who only did a few practice sessions and relied largely on natural talent.

As well as the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics, Jack also participated in other international athletics events. He was selected to run for England and the British Empire in athletics matches against France, the United States and Germany during the period 1927-1931.

Unfortunately, a leg injury in 1930 compelled Jack to reduce his appearances on the track. Despite not being able to perform at his best, he still helped the England sprint relay team in a race against German athletes in the late summer of 1931.

Jack retired from competitive athletics in the same year. Nevertheless, his personal passion for track and field remained strong throughout the rest of his life. In 1948, he wrote a book, The Way to Win on Track and Field, which provided practical advice for youngsters who were keen to take up athletics.

From medicine to musicals

As an undergraduate student at King’s, Jack had a strong ambition to study medicine. Before he could be permitted to study this subject, he had to do preliminary courses in the arts and sciences. At one stage, he studied theology.

But in 1929, he abandoned his plan to become a doctor. Having left KCL, he pursued another ambition – to enter the entertainments industry.

Jack had a profound interest in music and, in October 1931, he was cast in Noel Coward’s play, Cavalcade, as a piano player. Among the other actors in the play was a young John Mills, who later became a major British film star in the 1940s and the 1950s. Jack’s other talent was acting and he was offered roles in a few British films. Later in life, he was employed as an NHS worker at St Pancras Hospital in London.

Jack passed away at the age of 61 on 2 May 1966 as a result of a brain haemorrhage. The curtain had come down on the life of a highly gifted man, who had brought honour to Britain at the 1928 Olympics, and had given immense joy to many through his performances as an athlete and an entertainer.

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