Over 50 years since his greatest triumph it is perhaps appropriate to pay tribute to one of Chesterfield’s greatest ever sportsmen, the famous Olympian athlete and local living legend, Roland Hardy.
It was over fifty years ago – on May 31st 1952 at London’s White City Stadium that Roland Hardy broke a world record by an amazing nine seconds!
Incredibly the world record that he broke was his own – set on August 4th the previous year at the same venue when as a 22 year-old he became British Champion by winning the 7 Miles Walk and in the process beating Harry Churcher’s world record by…yes. a full – nine seconds!
Of course in those early days of television, outside broadcasts were almost unheard of and champion sportsmen, especially of the amateur variety, were largely anonymous. In fact, it was not until Roger Bannister broke the four-minute mile barrier in 1954 that the nation became gradually switched-on to outside broadcast athletics – though it was another decade before viewers were able to watch International Athletics events like European Championships and the Olympic Games with any degree of regularity. These days all major athletics events are beamed via satellite to television sets in homes all over the world, and in the lucrative commercial television market sports sponsorship is big business. Champion athletes are household names; our sporting heroes are honoured by wealth and celebrity.
We live in an age when our champions are fully professional, most with their own professional entourage of physiotherapists, trainers, dieticians and a whole host of technical products designed to aid fitness and thus enhance performance. The sporting stakes and rewards have never been so high.
Things were very different fifty years ago during that austere period just after the second-world war when ration books still ruled and petrol was purchased by coupons
Young sportsman Roland Hardy, third eldest of a family of eight children, had to train himself – aided by his brother Walter on a bicycle – buy his own kit, pay his own expenses, and exist on a spartan diet controlled by the government ration book. When he won, there were no television pictures to bring news of his triumphant world-record breaking exploits or to hail him as the new British Champion – his magnificent achievement however, did manage to make page ten of the local (Derbyshire Times) newspaper!
Four years later, on August 17th 1956 he finally made the front page when the headline proclaimed ” Roland Hardy Selected for Olympic Team “ ; it went on, ” Roland Hardy of Sheffield Road, Whittington Moor, who earlier this year smashed two more road-walking records, is Derbyshire’s only representative in the British team for the Olympic Games at Melbourne later this year.”
In the event (no pun intended) Roland finished a commendable eighth in the 20km walk in the Melbourne heat – which was a completely different experience from his first Olympic Games four years earlier when he represented Great Britain in the Helsinki 10,000m. Sadly, on that occasion he was disqualified for “˜lifting’ when well placed and in with a chance of a medal finish.
Nevertheless, he remains Derbyshire’s only double Olympian and thus occupies a unique place in our sporting history.
In the fifties Roland was a familiar sight pounding the roads around the Whittington area and as a schoolboy I well remember joining others who ran alongside him and cheered him on as his familiar figure strode swiftly down Sheffield Road in hot pursuit of his brother’s pace-making bicycle.
He epitomised the Corinthian spirit of the true dedicated amateur and he was my boyhood sporting hero. So, fifty years on, it was with a feeling of immense privilege and genuine pleasure that I recently met up with the man at his Newbold home.
I was warmly and politely welcomed by a cheerful and amazingly athletic-looking young man of seventy five whose familiar bright blue eyes, boyish grin, and dapper appearance belied his advanced age. When I remarked on this and asked him the secret of his youthful good looks, this self-effacing gentleman revealed that he didn’t drink, had never smoked – and that since he was a boy, has exercised for twenty minutes every night before he gets into bed – a routine that he still strictly follows. “Oh, and plenty of fresh air – and lots of walking!” he added, with a twinkle in his eye.
I learned that he also plays Crown Green bowls twice a week, and represents his local club, where he is regarded as quite an excellent player. I also learned that he was born on June 11th 1926 at 42 Carlisle Street, Sheepbridge and later attended Mary Swanwick School at Old Whittington where he excelled at woodwork and represented the school at both football and cricket.
He left school during the war years and worked at the Wagon Repairs Depot at Sheepbridge, and whilst playing centre-half in the local football league with Newbold Y.C. his sporting prowess was noted by soccer manager Teddy Davison, who promptly signed him for Sheffield United. Eighteen months later National Service put paid to his burgeoning soccer career and Roland served in the Royal Artillery for two years, first in Northern Ireland and later at Royston in Hertfordshire, on the Searchlight Battery.
After his demobilisation he became a fitter at the Summit Works on Whittington Moor and took up walking on the recommendation of Ernest Clay who invited him to train with Sheffield United Harriers.
His first competitive race was the 1949 Sheffield Star Walk – which he won, setting a new record and beating the old (1947) record by 53 seconds!
A sporting phenomenon named Roland Hardy had arrived, and his rise up the ranks was meteoric. He was peerless, winning races and breaking records wherever he went and within eighteen months of his Star Walk triumph he was representing Great Britain at the European Championships in Brussells. In March 1951 he won the National Road Walking Championships 10 Miles race in Surrey clipping 83 seconds off the previous record, and later in the year at the tender young age of twenty-two, became British Champion at the White City Stadium with victory in the 7 Miles Walk and in the process, broke the 5 Miles world-record!
The following year he did it again – and brought the first ever county title home to the newly formed Derbyshire AAA.
As a sports columnist of the day noted, Roland Hardy duly won the British Games 7 Miles Walk, and not content with just winning the event he smashed four of his own records; he broke the British all-comers, National, and English native records ..and knocked 9 seconds off his own World 5 Miles record.
The rest, as they say, is history – and the stuff of legend; two Olympic Games and a string of representative honours followed, and though Roland has ” never been one for keeping records “, he recalls being made a Life Member of Sheffield United Harriers and that he continued walking competitively – ” and for fun ” – until he was in his forties.
Half a century ago he married local lass Annie Mosley and has a daughter, Denise, who has since produced four grandchildren. Roland worked at the Summit Works for 30 years – duly receiving his gold watch after 25 of them – until he was made redundant when the works closed in the early 1970’s. He has lived at Winchester Road, Newbold since it was built in the 1950’s.
I was interested to know what had motivated and driven him? – and what did he regard as the high point of his career, his most cherished memory?
That boyish grin lit up his face; ” Well, meeting the Queen was the high point, I suppose, I was presented to Her Majesty by Lord Burleigh, along with the rest of the British Olmpic Team in 1953 ” he said, he mused a moment, and then ” but what I remember best of all, and cherish most is the Star Walk, coming over the hill at Sheffield Lane Top in sight of the finish and suddenly – a sea of faces, hundreds and hundreds of people cheering – and my mother and father and all the family waiting at the finishing line outside the Star offices and waving me towards the line “. His face beamed as he re-lived the moment, before adding wistfully, ” I was ever so pleased because they were there to see me and I made them feel so proud “.
That remark also revealed the answer to my question about motivation and drive. I learned that his family, and particularly his parents were his motivation.”˜Of course, I wanted to win – no athlete likes to be beaten, explained Roland, but I never wanted anything out of it, not for myself anyway. He added, I never wanted any fame or glory, I just wanted to win for my family, – and besides, there were some good prizes to be won, canteens of cutlery and such – and times were hard.
I began to understand the true nature of real sportsmanship and sporting endeavour, especially when I asked if I could see the many medals and trophies, certificates, British Representative Caps etc, that Roland had won over the years, and the almost inevitable scrap-book full of news cutting and photographs – but he had very little to show me. He managed to find just one medal – from the Melbourne Olympic Games of 1956, and a couple of old photographs; typical of this extremely personable and modest man, he had given the rest away to members of his family, including his four grandchildren, each of whom he adores and who, no doubt, are justifiably proud of their legendary grandfather.
I thanked him for showing them to me and for being such a gracious host and then I left, satisfied that I had learned enough during my visit to write a special tribute to a local living legend, a man I had long since respected and admired, and my lasting impression of Roland Hardy is of a somewhat shy, modest and retiring 78 year-old widower who in every way proved to be the true sporting gentleman that I had always believed him to be.
Article from Peak District Writer Tom Bates