Steel and Grace of city Olympians

Sebastian Coe after winning the 1500m at the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984.
Sebastian Coe after winning the 1500m at the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984.
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Book chronicles careers of Sheffield’s unknown Olympians and their unusual training habits

The glittering careers of Sheffield’s Olympians are the subject of a new book by a fanatical city sports double act.

Juan Carlos Zabala leads the marathon field around the Olympic Stadium track.  Ernie Harper is in second place.''Taken from Steel and Grace by Matthew Bell and Gary Armstrong

Juan Carlos Zabala leads the marathon field around the Olympic Stadium track. Ernie Harper is in second place.''Taken from Steel and Grace by Matthew Bell and Gary Armstrong

Steel and Grace, Sheffield’s Olympic Track and Field Medallists, is the latest offering from the busy pens of Matthew Bell and Gary Armstrong and chronicles the exploits of some of the city’s top athletes.

Household names including Seb Coe and Jessica Ennis-Hill are obviously featured, alongside some interesting tales about some of the city’s lesser known Olympians.

The book gives equal space to relatively unknown characters from more than a century back who triumphed over impossible odds when funding was scarce and facilities were ‘stuck in the Stone Age’.

Matthew Bell, aged 53, from Norton Lees, has edited the Sheffield United fanzine, Flashing Blade, since 1989.

Jessica Ennis

Jessica Ennis

Gary Armstrong, aged 54, from Handsworth, an academic, met Bell while contributing to the fanzine.

So what was it that set them on their Sheffield Olympic quest?

Bell wanted to find out more after being stumped when asked what he knew about the Sheffield runner who won a silver medal in the 1936 Berlin Games despite running eight miles with a shoe full of blood caused by blisters - that athlete was Ernie Harper.

Armstrong was ‘nosing round’ the living room of a house in the south east of Sheffield when he came across a decanter in a trophy cabinet and asked about its origins, only to be told: “It was awarded to our father - after he won a medal at the 1912 Stockholm Olympics.”

The Hallamshire Harriers team that won the 1907 Northern cross-country championship.  Harold Wilson is seated, extreme right.''Taken from Steel and Grace by Matthew Bell and Gary Armstrong

The Hallamshire Harriers team that won the 1907 Northern cross-country championship. Harold Wilson is seated, extreme right.''Taken from Steel and Grace by Matthew Bell and Gary Armstrong

The pair examine the lives, times and achievements of the athletes, as well as the political events of the time - from the Nazi showcase in Berlin to the Black Power Salute image which dominated the troubled Mexico games.

Harold Wilson and Archie Robertson were the Olympic trail-blazers for Sheffield as team-mates in the GB and Ireland squad at the 1908 London Games.

Both were middle-distance runners. Wilson was from a Lincolnshire family which moved to South Yorkshire. He was only 5ft 4ins tall and weighed just seven stone. 

Robertson was the son of a Scottish doctor who employed two servants and was born at Harthill near Rotherham.

They competed in the London Games with Wilson winning silver in the 1,500m and both winning golds in the three mile team event.

William Cottrell, 21, hailed from Woodhouse village. His father George was a successful grocer but also a runner of renown who competed for wagers.

Ernest Glover was born in 1891 into a working class family in Darnall, the fifth of nine children.He became a coal miner along with two of his brothers.

Glover and Cottrell were the first athletes from the city to run, watched over by judges with the benefit of timing technologies then unknown to the sport.

Both raced into their thirties - in a city where the powers that be prohibited runners even training in public parks.

They were expected to pay their own way in training and travel costs but still collected medals at the 1912 Stockholm Games.

Glover, a Hallamshire Harrier, competed in the cross-country and won a team bronze while Cottrell fared likewise in the 3,000m team event.

Ernie ‘Evergreen’ Harper competed in three Olympics, moving up from the 10,000m to the marathon at Berlin in 1936 after competing in Paris and Amsterdam.

Born in Clay Cross in 1902 his family settled in hilly Uppergate, Stannington, which was ideal for training.

The Hallamshire Harrier’s methods were unusual, to say the least. He rarely took on liquid and had smoked since the age of 11 - a habit maintained throughout his career.

Rumour had it his trainer lit a cigarette for him at the end of every race!

Harper took part in the marathon in Berlin in 1936.The boiling heat was against him but he battled crippling foot blisters to take the silver medal.

Back home at a civic reception Ernie explained the secrets to his success - mutton chops and cigarettes.

Husband and wife John and Sheila Sherwood are also an integral part of Sheffield’s Olympic story. Sheila won a silver medal in the women’s Long Jump at the 1968 Games in Mexico, while John took the bronze in the 400 metres hurdles.

The concluding chapters cover better-known modern Olympians including Seb Coe and Jessica Ennis-Hill.

Their careers are told with passion but the book poses a final query about the logic of knocking down Don Valley Stadium.

Book snippets

* ‘Sport was one piece of Sheffield’s regeneration jigsaw. If we had not taken the controversial decision to invest £150m in new facilities our city would not be where it is today and would be a much sadder place’ - Coun Peter Price on his own website in 2012.

* Parson Cross-born Sheila Parkin was only 16 when she competed in the 1962 Commonwealth Games and European Championships. She won a long-jump silver in the Mexico Olympics in 1968 - the same year she married John Sherwood, who won a 400m hurdles bronze at the same games.

* In 1979 great rivals Seb Coe and Steve Ovett became inextricably linked in the psyche of the British public.