My small tribute to the man I consider our greatest ever Olympian, and the greatest Olympic Equestrian EVER, from any country. Last night, watching the showjumping, the Channel Seven male commentator lauded up NZ’s Mark Todd as the greatest ever Equestrian at the Olympics – sorry, he’s a great horseman but he doesn’t hold a candle to ‘Our Bill’ – James William “Bill” George Roycroft, OBE (17 March 1915 – 29 May 2011).
The deed for which Bill Roycroft will forever be renowned occurred at the Rome Olympics in 1960. On the last day of the three-day equestrian event, Australia faced a grim predicament. Two riders, Laurie Morgan and Neale Lavis, were doing well; Brian Crago’s horse had broken down, and the fourth member of the team, Bill Roycroft, was in hospital – concussed, sedated, with extensive bruising and muscle damage. [Odille’s note: plus a broken shoulder blade and a dislocated collar-bone.]
Doctors refused to sanction his release from hospital. The problem was, if Australia was to win the team event, we needed three finishers. Roycroft had fallen during the steeplechase phase the previous day after his horse, Our Solo, somersaulted over pipes and landed on him. He had climbed groggily back, finished the course, then been given oxygen (and whisky) and flown by helicopter to a hospital outside Rome.
Next morning, with the final phase, the show-jumping, due to start soon, Roycroft insisted on signing himself out of hospital. The doctors said no, and refused to give him his clothes; he then threatened to leave in his underpants. Finally, he signed a document taking responsibility for his safety, and was allowed to go. He was 45, laced heavily with pain-killers, unable to bend, and his comrades had to dress him for the last ride. He was virtually folded onto Our Solo, and the reins were placed in his hands. Stiffly, flawlessly, he completed the round of 12 jumps, ensuring team gold for Australia. (Morgan also won the individual event).
Roycroft, patriarch of a legendary riding family, competed in four more Olympics, winning team bronze in 1968 and 1976. He also carried the flag at the Mexico Opening Ceremony in 1968.”
After the 1960 Games he rode in the 1964 Games, although the Australian team came only seventh. In 1965 he had a six-month stay in England, where he was the first person to ride three horses in the Badminton three-day event, which meant covering more than 80km over about 120 jumps in one day in the cross country, and became the first Australian to win there. Bill brought three horses to compete at Badminton in 1965. Riding Eldorado, who finished second, Stoney Crossing (sixth) and Avatar made him the first person to field three competitors in the one of the world’s most prestigious horse trials.
More remarkably, though, the previous month Stoney Crossing had given Roycroft, then 51, his second experience of race-riding by finishing third to Arkle and Mill House at Cheltenham. Roycroft and Stoney Crossing went on to start second favourite at Aintree over the Grand National fences. They were baulked by a faller at the fourth and Roycroft was unseated, but he remounted to complete the course finishing 4th, no more than 35 lengths behind the winner. Remarkable feats by a remarkable horseman. At the end of the season Roycroft sold his horses Stoney Crossing and Glenoe to an English businessman for £Aus23,750 – probably because it would have been too costly to bring them home.
Away from competition there was always life on the farm with Mavis and the boys. Roycroft trained his sons and Mavis selected the horses. Roycroft said she was “a great person and a great judge of horses. Our success revolves around her”. The family also worked hard to make dairy farming pay and Roycroft only stopped riding after a fall in 1997 that broke three ribs. When the Olympic Flame came to their nearby town of Camperdown in 2000 on its way to the Sydney Games, Roycroft walked into the town with it, bringing the town to a standstill, then son Barry rode out it out of town again.
This Olympic career which Roycroft launched at age 45 continued through four more Games, winning team bronze at the 1968 Mexico City and the 1976 Montreal Olympics, and the distinction of carrying the Australian flag in Mexico City. Bill produced 23 Olympic horses, which is a feat that will be hard to be repeated. The majority of these horses were sold and a percentage of the money went back into Equestrian Australia to help fund future Olympic teams.
Bill’s Olympic career also yielded a dynasty; four more Roycrofts rode in later Games, sons Barry, Wayne, and Clarke, and Wayne’s first wife Vicki, now one of Seven’s commentators at the Olympics. Bill and Wayne received the bronze medal at the 1968 Mexico City Games and the 1976 Montreal Games making them the first father and son combination to stand on the medal dais together.
Roycroft became an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 1969 for his service to sport, and was awarded an Order of Merit by the Australian Olympic Committee in 1978 for his outstanding achievement in sport. He helped carry the official Olympic flag into the stadium at the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games along with seven other Australian Olympians.
He was inducted into the Sport Australia Hall of Fame in 1985 and elevated to Legend of Australian Sport status in 1996.
Compiled from pieces by Harry Gordon, AOC historian, Equestrian Australia site, Wikipedia, Australian Biography