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Indigenous pioneer athlete Percy Hobson passes away

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*WARNING: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are warned that the following article contains images of deceased persons

 

Percy Hobson, Australia’s first indigenous gold medallist at the Commonwealth Games has passed away in Melbourne aged 79.

A Gundabooka man and known as the ‘Boy from Bourke’ Hobson won the men’s high jump at the Perth 1962 British Empire and Commonwealth Games in a terrific competition.

He was indeed a pioneer for indigenous athletes in Olympic and Commonwealth Games competition.

In Perth, six days after Hobson won gold, boxer Jeff ‘Mitta’ Dynevor would win gold in the Bantamweight division.

The first indigenous Olympians debuted two years later in Tokyo in 1964 and we would wait until Nova Peris in 1996 for Olympic gold, achieved in hockey.

Born in 1942 and raised in the western NSW country town of Bourke, Percy Hobson was one of 10 children (eight girls and two boys) to parents Fanny Williams and Percy Hobson.

His mother was the daughter of NSW Police Aboriginal tracker Frank Williams.

He started high jumping at school carnivals aged 13.

By 17 he was appearing in the national rankings (1960) leaping a modest 1.88m.

His entry into national competition was no more impressive, when competing at the 1961 Australian Championships, held on Lang Park in Brisbane, he placed 12th and last, clearing just 1.75m.

 

Percy Hobson in action at the Perth 1962 Games. (CGA Archive)

 

Hobson, who was coached by Doug McBain by correspondence from Sydney, had to overcome long travel to Sydney for competition and occasional training sessions with McBain, while most of his training was undertaken in his own backyard.

He would start his runup in a laneway between the pub and his house, clearing a bar held up by metal uprights made by his cousin – a welder named Frank Bye.

Initially, Hobson just landed on the ground, then bark shaving, but when he broke the NSW record held by Jack Metcalfe help started to arrive.

“The (Bourke) Council come along and dumped a big load of sand in the backyard…that was luxury plus,” Hobson told Kris Flanders of NITV in 2020.

In later years he would land on rubber filled hessian bags.

Despite these hurdles, Hobson was making significant improvement and in November 1961, 12 months before the Games in Perth, he cleared 2.03m at a meet in Sydney in November.

Unfortunately for Hobson, during the remainder of the 1961/62 season, Australian high jumping moved to record levels.

In early 1962 Australian’s Tony Sneazwell and Colin Ridgeway had raised the national record to 2.11m, then 2.146m, respectively.

But at the Australian Championships in March 1962, Hobson was up to the challenge, surprising the field winning the competition.

After the meet, Hobson was named in a five-person high jump squad for the Perth Commonwealth Games, due to be held in November.

Back home in Bourke, Hobson embarked on training for the final Australian team trials for the Commonwealth Games to be held in Melbourne on October 20 and 21.

He received financial support from the community who raised funds for him to travel to competitions, mostly in Sydney.

Another important supporter was his employer, Tancred’s Meat Works who allowed the butcher time off to train and travel for competitions and Airlines of NSW provided discounted airfares.

There was great interest around his selection prospects with an ABC television crew visiting Bourke to film a feature on Hobson in August.

In October, he confirmed his place in the Commonwealth Games team by finishing second in the final team trials.

In early November, he celebrated his 20th birthday just prior to departing for Perth.

In front of a crowd of 20,000 at the newly constructed Perry Lakes stadium, there were 11 starters for the men’s high jump final to decide the best in the Commonwealth.

Hobson commenced jumping at 1.88m with the long and enduring competition taking three hours for a decision in the stifling 40-degree heat.

With six competitors remaining in the competition, 2.06m would be a defining height as Hobson cleared on his second attempt to take the lead over Melbourne 1956 Olympic silver medallist Charles ‘Chilla’ Porter, while the other four competitors failed to progress.

Hobson went on to win in a Games record height of 2.11m.

At just 20 years of age, the NSW country athlete had defeated a crack field to take the Commonwealth title.

He was the toast of Bourke who were proud their town’s name was beamed around the world.

Percy Hobson being awarded his gold medal at the Perth 1962 Games. (CGA Archive)

 

He was Australia’s first indigenous Olympic or Commonwealth Games gold medallist.

“Yeah I’m pretty proud of that. That was the biggest achievement. The journey there. And I can’t complain — I ended up with a gold medal,” he told Kris Flanders.

“Didn’t sink in straight away, you know, I was just emotional,” said Hobson. “I didn’t cry or anything, I just really felt good.”

In his hometown of Bourke there was great anticipation and eventually excitement at his achievement.

“On the night I’d won it, mum never had any visitors ever. And that night the whole house was packed, people wishing her good and all that.”

The town celebrated upon his return with a Civic reception 29 November.

In later years there was a Park named in his honour and an entire area at the visitor’s centre dedicated to him, with the council erecting a sandstone memorial detailing his successes.

In May 2021 work was completed on a Bourke Water Tower mural of Percy Hobson clearing a high jump bar. Percy was due to return to Bourke in early 2022 for its official unveiling.

Percy is survived by his four children – sons Wesley, Doug and Keith and daughter Francis, along with his six grandchildren and one great grandchild, along with surviving sisters Freda, Heather, Sue, Margaret and Jean.

Sister Freda Harvey said Percy was thrilled to be invited to the annual First Nations Day at the 2022 Australian Open to celebrate the history and culture of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people alongside Wiradjuri woman and seven-time Grand Slam champion Evonne Goolagong Cawley and was looking forward to joining other Indigenous sporting greats at the occassion.

“He was so thrilled to be invited and remembered and was really looing forward to that,” Freda said.

“We are all heartbroken… he was our hero”.

Percy Hobson cleared high bars throughout his life setting records for others to follow and Commonwealth Games Australia mourns the passing of an Australian sporting trailblazer.

 

David Tarbotton for Commonwealth Games Australia

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