The immortals of Sussex sport
PUBLISHED: 15:02 09 May 2014 | UPDATED: 15:06 09 May 2014
Across the country, local communities have erected statues commemorating sporting figures. Sussex is no exception, as a new book reveals
By 1980, the rivalry between world athletes Steve Ovett and Sebastian Coe was dominating headlines around the world. It was a golden period for British middle-distance running. Ovett had captured the world mile record and equalled Coe’s 1500 metres record.
But they were very different personalities with very different styles – Ovett’s raw edge and power contrasting with the smooth, floating elegance of Coe. They also appealed to different sets of fans – of which there were legions.
Ovett was BBC Sports Personality of the Year in 1978 and Coe in 1979. As the Moscow 1980 Olympics approached, 24-year-old Ovett was favourite for gold in the 1500m and Coe for the 800m – with the final of the shorter distance coming first.
Along the south coast in Brighton there is a lasting memory of that iconic race when Britain’s two world-class middle-distance runners competed for gold in the 800 metres, head-to-head for only the second time in international competition. It was a robust, bumping and pushing contest made for a racer. That racer was Brighton-born Ovett. The triumph that day belonged to him.
After a campaign led by a local schoolteacher, a life-size bronze statue of Ovett was commissioned by what was then Brighton Borough Council from local artist, Peter Webster. It depicted Ovett in that final, bursting stride to glory in the 1980 Olympics.
Erected in 1987 in Preston Park where Ovett frequently used to train, it was sadly stolen in 2007, sawn off from its plinth above Ovett’s right ankle. Police later recovered a leg and a few small pieces, the rest feared sold for scrap.
The London 2012 Olympics inspired a campaign for a replacement and, shortly before it began, a fine new sculpture of Brighton’s great athlete (made an OBE in 2000) was erected near the seafront. Fittingly, the distance from the statue to the pier and back is 800m.
Mike Hawthorn - The Farnham Flyer
At Goodwood’s motor racing circuit near Chichester there’s a moving tribute to Mike Hawthorn (1929-59), the golden boy of motor racing, who drove fast, lived with style and died young at the age of 29.
Hawthorn was the first British Formula One motor-racing champion. In 1958, winning only one Grand Prix to the four victories that year of fellow countryman Stirling Moss, Hawthorn’s greater consistency in his Ferrari won the title by just one point over his gallant and senior rival.
He became the first in a long and illustrious line of British drivers to win the prestigious Formula One drivers’ title.
Born in Yorkshire, his racing career took off in 1952 when he was spotted, and later mentored, by Jaguar’s racing manager, Lofty England. He came into international prominence when he beat the great Argentinian driver, Juan Fangio, in the 1953 Grand Prix, and for more than 150 miles there was scarcely a length
He was clearly destined for greatness and his charm, broad grin and bow-tie lifted everyone’s spirits. The French nicknamed him ‘Le Paillon’ (the butterfly).
Sadly, in 1959, just months after announcing his retirement from motor racing, he was killed in a car accident on the A3 Guildford bypass in Surrey. His death made headline news, though the circumstances of the crash remain unclear. Driving his British racing green Jaguar saloon, he had spotted a racing friend ahead, overtook
and then skidded off the road at a wet corner, fatally hitting a tree.
In 2005, more than 50 years after his death, a charming life-size bronze sculpture of Hawthorn with Lofty England, sculpted by David Annand and funded entirely by donations, was erected facing the pits at Goodwood racetrack.
He is depicted walking in a relaxed fashion beside England, who places a hand on his shoulder, and it’s a tribute to their days at Jaguar. It’s a warm sculpture reflecting the friendship of the two men.
Tom Sayers - Champion Prize-Fighter
Tom Sayers (1826-1865) was one of the last great bare-knuckle fighters. Born in a slum district of Brighton, he developed his strength as a bricklayer before
leaving for London and entering the world of prize-fighting. Just 5ft 8ins and lighter than most, he became widely recognised as the heavyweight champion of England.
On April 17 1860, one of the last major prize fights in England took place in Farnborough, Hampshire, when Sayers, then 34, fought John Heenan. Taller, heavier and 10 years younger than Sayers, Heenan was American champion. He had been enticed to Farnborough by the promise of the £2,000 prize money and the unofficial billing
of the ‘world championship’.
The Sayers/Heenan fight attracted enormous publicity and a crowd of more than 12,000 gathered, including, reportedly, Charles Dickens and William Makepeace Thackeray.
The two fighters fought to a standstill for more than two hours and 35 rounds. By the end Heenan was virtually blinded and Sayers had a broken arm and was on the ropes, near strangulation. A riot broke out and the fight was later declared a draw. Sayers was encouraged to retire by his supporters, though sadly he died barely five years later, weakened by alcohol and pneumonia.
In 2010, 150 years after his legendary fight, a commemorative bronze plaque designed by Carl Payne was unveiled in Brighton on the western wall of North Road near
the area where he grew up.
Ballyregan Bob - Top Dog
In the mid Eighties the sport of greyhound racing was lifted by the exploits of one extraordinary dog, whose name would join the ‘greats’. That dog was Ballyregan Bob (1983- 1994), who was as fast as any greyhound has ever been.
With an Irish pedigree, he was bred in the south of England and his local track was Hove. Astonishingly, in retrospect, he lost his first four races before becoming, in the words of his trainer George Curtis, “the perfect racing machine”.
Curtis knew he had a special greyhound on his hands. Ballyregan Bon won 41 of his next 43 races. A stirring burst of speed over the back straight to win the trainers’ championship meeting at Walthamstow in 1985 demonstrated his class. An injury kept him out of the Greyhound Derby and, subsequently, he competed mostly in the longer, six-bend races – a distance at which his stamina and speed were unsurpassed.
A winning streak started in August 1985, unparalleled in the history of the sport. He won most races comfortably, but a semi-final win in the 1986 St Leger at Wembley became legendary when, boxed in after the first bend and as two of the field were more or less crashing to the deck, Bob hurdled over one of them to avoid a fall and then made up a seemingly impossible distance on the leader (ironically, one of Bob’s litter brothers). Huge crowds attended his races and he set track records wherever he competed.
On December 9, 1986 at 9.19pm, he stood on the verge of a new world record. Could he become the winner of 32 races in succession? Appropriately, that final race was held at his home track at Hove and broadcast live on BBC television.
The traps flew open and he was in third place going into the bend, before moving into second. By the last bend the world record was never in doubt, as he accelerated more than nine lengths clear of any follower.
He retired after that ground-breaking victory, beginning a new life as a stud dog, and his achievements are honoured at Hove with a statue sculpted by James Osborne. Bob is depicted in full flight, racing towards the finishing line, and the sculpture stands prominently beside the track where Ballyregan Bob made history.