Percy Hobson is a shy and private man. In his home there’s no signs of medals or the photos to tell you that this former high-flyer was a huge sporting deal in the 1960’s — and that’s how he likes it.
The year was 1962 and Hobson was competing in the opening day of competition at the Perth Commonwealth Games in the high-jump. It was a stinking hot day, over 40 degrees, and the jumps started at 1.30pm before finishing up well after 5pm.
A dehydrated Percy jumped 6 '11 to claim first place ahead of fellow Australian high-jumper, Charles “Chilla” Porter in second spot, with Anton Norris from Barbados claiming the bronze medal. It was a gold medal, and a new Commonwealth Games record.
“Didn't sink in straight away, you know, I was just emotional," says Percy. "I didn't cry or anything, I just really felt good.”
The win made Percy Hobson the first Indigenous athlete to win Commonwealth gold. The Perth Games also saw Jeff Dynevor from Cherbourg in Queensland, claim gold in boxing, which is still to this day the only boxing win by an Indigenous fighter at the Commonwealth Games.
"He said, 'you know why you didn't go?' And I said no and he said 'because you're Aboriginal'."
Percy was born in 1942 and grew up in Bourke in far-western NSW where he was one of ten children.
“Well it was a very hot place, a real country town. There wasn't much to do, but we kept occupied and you've got to remember it was post-war," he says.
Standing at 5'10, even Percy himself says he didn’t have the height or build to be a good high-jumper, but what he did have was cracking pace and he used that to his advantage. "The only reason I come into athletics was school sports, I used to like running and high jump just came naturally, I could always jump my own height.”
As Percy’s love for the sport grew, along with his his abilities, he began to travel great distances to compete. that He regularly caught the overnight train from Bourke to Sydney, around 800 kilometres, to go to competitions.
Training when he was home in Bourke consisted of him constructing his own makeshift high-jump. Percy would use a long run up, something that would propel him to Commonwealth Games Gold later, and spring over the bar. At first he was landing on the bare ground in his backyard, but this would eventually graduate to sand once he broke the National Record.
“I was stuck on 6.4" for about 18 months and all of a sudden I jumped 6.8" which broke a 28-year-old record that Jack Metcalfe set, says Percy.
"That was the incentive, the improvement. That's when I got a lot of help from everyone. The (Bourke) Council come along and dumped a big load of sand in the backyard...that was luxury plus.”
It wasn’t just training and heavy travel schedules that he faced - throughout his athletics career racism was something Percy says he had to deal with
He recalls a time when he was left out of the Australian squad for a tournament held in Indonesia…which was a clear cut case of racism.
“I just assumed that I'd be in the side, you know, because I was the Australian champion and they took every other Australian champion...except me. And I thought wow you know they're a bit biased for Melbourne athletes. And then one bloke from Sydney said, 'you know why you didn't go?' And I said no and he said 'because you're Aboriginal'."
Percy exacted some form of revenge and got satisfaction by winning Commonwealth Games gold later that year.
“After the comp a selector came up to me and said, 'Will you sign an autograph book for me?' And I told him to go make love to himself because I missed out the trip to Indonesia because of being Aboriginal.”
There was a hero’s welcome when he returned home to Bourke after winning the Gold Medal. Percy thinks there was well over 500 people and a brass band, again all the fanfare was something that didn’t sit quite right with the shy man.
“Well it was a big thing for a country town. You know, I didn't want it, but then I had to because they all supported me. Apparently on the night I won it, Mum, who never had any visitors ever. and that night the whole house was packed. People wishing her good and all that.”
In typical laid-back fashion and from a man who doesn’t like to blow his own trumpet – Percy reflects on what it means to achieve something no other Indigenous athlete had done up till that point.
“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.”
Close family friend and author, Helen Coolican, is currently writing a book on Percy Hobson’s sporting career and life away from the athletics track.
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