Australian Biography

Bill Roycroft - full interview transcript

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Did your riding on that final day in Rome make a real difference for the team? What was the result of it?

My final ride, yes certainly did make a difference. Because if I hadn't ridden there would have been no gold, no team gold medal. Because you have to have three finish on that final day to get any medal, you know. So me having a clean round probably didn't mean that much difference, but I did jump a clean round, because we could have had a lot of faults. Long as I competed, I could have had a lot of faults and still won the gold medal. Because when Laurie Morgan went, I think Laurie had one or two fences down, because he could have nearly knocked all those fences down and still won the gold medal... We were that far ahead of the rest of the teams. Yes.

Why do you think the Australian team was so much better than everybody else at that Rome Olympics?

Well I think possibly it was so many were eliminated in the cross-country. I think out of seventy odd starters, nearly half them fell by the way in the cross-country. So we didn't compete against a hell of a lot of team on that final day. I think probably they probably - the first time probably met thoroughbred horses, and men who could ride them, you know.

And it wasn't common to use thoroughbred horses?

No, they were more for the warm-bloods. They're a bit heavier type and couldn't - they couldn't stand the speed that was required for cross-country. And, I don't know, it's pretty contentious and it's not right of me to say damn it, they weren't as good as us. Perhaps they had a lot of damn bad luck. Well I had bad luck, didn't I, but I was lucky enough to come back and still compete on that final day. So I don't think it's right of me to be bigheaded and say well for Christ's sake we were much better.

But you were good at that fast cross-country riding?

Yes, we were. Yes, we were. That was our thing. And I think - I can remember one of our riders saying - I had trouble at Gawler - and one of our riders that had been said to the manager, "Why the hell didn't you leave him alone? You told him not to go too fast. He likes riding fast. Why didn't you leave him alone?" That sort of thing. But I suppose a hell of a lot of them, they probably, they just weren't up to it. And we've got to be damn careful, you know, even in Australia, just because he is winning here, unless your courses are up to it, he's not really the tops. Well we run a lot of events, right from very little ones, you know, and they get their score and that puts them up another grade, and then they win there and they go up another grade. And then they get up to the top, it's different to when we did it. They were all the right height when we went out and jumped them. We didn't start off with a little fence, and then up a bigger fence and then up. We didn't have those grades in my time. Not in my early time anyhow. And the cross-countries, we didn't have a pre-novice, then a novice, and then an intermediate and then an advanced. We didn't have those. We jumped the top one straight away and to hell if you couldn't jump it, you stayed home. That's the big difference.

And you believe in that old system.

Well I suppose it's probably good to bring on the ones that - they weren't all Laurie Morgans you know that rode their ponies to school bareback and jumped big logs. Today we've got to think about it that kids are picked up on the bus and carted to school. Like this area here, our boys probably never gone to an Olympic Games, probably never kept up with horses, had I not taken them off that bus and said okay boys, you're going three miles to the state school and you're going to ride or walk. You know, 45 settlers on this area here and none of the others ever competed like our boys did. No one much ever got on the horse I suppose, because they picked up from school, home from school, and then television come in, watch television. Different, it is different now.

Back in Rome, how did you feel when you knew that you'd won the gold medal for the team? What happened with the team when they were told?

We had a party that night. We did, and we probably drank a bit too much that night. I used my left hand, because my right one wasn't terribly good, but I seemed to get on pretty well with that left hand then. Yes. It was great, and you know, I was, I was first to go, I was nearly first to go, because most riders had fallen by the way. You know, I was eighth of all the countries, eighth to go. And I think I was about second to go into that show jumping because the rest of them had fallen by the way. When I finished I went and sat up in the stand with Mavis, and I was terribly worried about these other fellas. For God's sake now I hope they don't take the wrong course and eliminate the team. Me being worried about it, what the hell were they been doing when they were sitting watching me go. Can he make it, you know, every jump. Did I forget where I was? It was a bit stupid of me wasn't it? Me sitting up worrying about them.

Were you surprised at what a hero that ride, that last ride, had made you back in Australia? I mean people here were so excited about what their enduring, brave Aussie Bill Roycroft had done. Were you surprised that it had turned you into a hero?

Yeah, I was surprised. I was. And there was a chap, and he rang, Dan O'Grady, he was a man that raced horses and he had a shop in there. I went into see him and he said, he greeted me and said "Bugger you, Bill". And I said "What are you buggering me for?" He said, "You had my wife crying like a baby". [laughs] Yeah. It did affect people apparently. And there was a chap in Camperdown, I'd done the Camperdown Show not long after that, and he dressed up and wrapped himself in bandages and rode in, you know, this is Bill Roycroft. Yeah. All silly things like that do affect people I suppose.

Did the press get very interested in you? Were the media after you?

Not greatly no, no I think they had it all before I got home, you know, because after - when the Games had finished Mavis and I and a few of the other team, we drove up through Italy to the top, out through Austria, Holland, Belgium, back into France. We went through Germany and bought saddles. Across into England, we did Scotland, Ireland, back, caught the boat home. So by the time we got home you know, the whole thing had died down. They'd forgotten it.

So that was the Rome Olympics. Your first Olympics and there was a gold medal. Why didn't you feel, well that's good enough, I've done the Olympics now? Why did you decide you wanted to go to the next Olympics?

Yeah, I suppose that's a damn good question, isn't it? Had I been satisfied, gone played golf, you know, I could have been - what's the champion golf player? Greg...

Greg Norman.


Is your golf that good?


Your golf is that good too?

No, no. But I probably could have been a Greg Norman and made money, rather than spend it, you know. Perhaps there wasn't the money to be made in golf those days like he's making now.

But you decided that you wanted to go to Tokyo... which was the next Olympics. What did that mean for you? What did you have to do then to make sure that you could go to Tokyo?

Well I prepared more horses. Eldorado, a big chestnut horse, Avatar and Stony Crossing. I took three horses of mine there. Barry went as a show jump rider on a horse called Jannali. And we flew, we flew those horses to Tokyo. And I had a lot of nice flights on planes, but that particular flight was a very frightening one. We went with six horses on a DC4, an old prop plane. And we couldn't fly over 9,000 feet, and we had no radar. So we couldn't go over 9,000 feet because we had no oxygen. We had to - we flew into storm after storm after we left Moresby, because we had no radar. We didn't see any storms, but we flew into them. We were heading for Guam then. And you'd be going along and the plane would get very rough and we'd go to the head of the horses and stand with them. And she'd drop, you know. You'd fly into these down draughts and she'd drop three or four hundred feet, oh boy. And the roar of those engines when they were coming out of it. We had Franz Mairinger with us, and that's why I wrote the bit about his saying, you know. And he would never fly again after that trip. He would never go with horses in a plane after that.

How did the horses react?

Well the horses couldn't do anything, you know, because in that little plane, that DC4, only a small plane, we had them strapped in their boxes. They had straps underneath them, straps over the top, under their buttocks, around underneath their chest. And they couldn't go down in their box, nor could they come out of it. Had they not been strapped in, when that plane dropped out, they would have come out of those boxes and been in the plane with us. You know, those planes dropping like that, Neale Lavis was with us and we had seats at the tail end of the plane, a few seats. And looking back, when it got rough we'd go up to the head of the horses, but Neale's a sleepy little bloke, he'd been still there on his seat. And when the plane dropped out, he'd be feet off his seat you know. They'd drop out from underneath him. It was - and we had several of those big drops as we went. And one horse, Avatar, he was a guts for his feed, and it didn't worry him about the plane dropping. He'd be still grabbing at his hay net as the thing dropped. And we landed at Guam 12 o'clock at night. And I was glad to get down out of the thing. We had some top pilots there, and they told us after, after we got to Tokyo they were damn worried too, you know. One of those drops we could have kept dropping. You know, when they drop like that, with a load on, they're liable to tear the damn wings off it while they come out of it. Anyhow it was okay. But the Americans coming with their horses were run into rough weather too, and one horse played up so badly, he was bumping his head through the roof of the plane, they had to put him down. And the Irish, the Irish lost a horse too. I don't know what happened to him, but they lost one too.

How long does it take for horses to settle down after a flight like that?

We didn't have any worry with them. We rode them quietly next day. You don't go out and put the pressure on straight away, but we did ride them. And other times I've been on a long trip in the big jets, right through to Canada, across to England. And I've taken a horse out and then ride them quietly next day off the plane. I've had no trouble, although they tell me a lot of people are having trouble with horses off the planes.

What was the highlight of the Tokyo Games for you? What was the big moment for you there?

Well, the big moment - there wasn't a great big moment there, because we didn't do terribly well. See we were about seventh, that was about the worst we ever did. We had John Kelly in the team, he had two falls, Neale Lavis had a fall. And I went clear. I had a fall, but I hung on to my horse's neck and got out of the penalty area. I wasn't penalised but it did take me a bit of time to get going. And when I say it took me time to get going, if you come off and not be in the penalty area, you wait 'til that judge comes and sees. You know, I'll have to tell you quickly about the penalty areas. They don't have them any more, about 12 months ago they cut them out. But you had a 10 metre circle in front of a jump and you had a 20 metre circle after you jumped the fence. And if you had to stop in the first part of it, it was 20 for a stop. If you fell in the penalty area after the jump you got 60 penalties. So those things don't happen any more, they've cut them out. Now what was I...

But you were almost thrown in the penalty area, and you managed.

Oh yes, yes.

How did you manage to stay on the horse?

I hung round his neck. I hung round with my legs up until he got out. Now where they made the cross-country in Tokyo was virgin country, old scrub country. And this scrubby stuff had very deep roots. And they grubbed it out, they'd grubbed it out with bulldozers or something and just filled it in with loose soil. Now they pat it down and it looks pretty good, you know, but they had about two inches of rain the night before we competed there, and to hit one of those spots, boy your horse was down. Neale Lavis was in the same hole. His horse fell. But my horse didn't fall, but he was down on his knees and threw me up around his neck and I hung around his neck with my feet up and he went over the penalty area. And they draw - it's a white line on the earth they draw across. And I stopped there until I made the Japanese come down and see that I was over the penalty area before I touched down. Yep.

Now after Tokyo...

That was taking time.

After Tokyo, where things didn't go so well, the next one after that was Mexico... wasn't it? What do you remember most about the Mexico Games?

Let me go back just for a time, very quickly, about you know, things that do happen that are funny. I thought it was pretty funny. There was one bloke didn't think it was very funny. We used to go down the bar of a night-ime. We were in a big hotel and the bar was down - downstairs underground. And during the night, I lost my false teeth. Not my top teeth, but I had my own front teeth at that time at the bottom, but I had a little partial plate at the back. And during the night I probably - they were hurting me, so I put them in a handkerchief, put them in my pocket, and I suppose during the night I pulled them out to use the handkerchief and dropped them on the floor. And one of these young Irish blokes saw them, picked them up and Harry Freeman-Jackson used to sleep with his teeth in a jar or something during the night. So he took Harry's teeth, put my teeth in the jar, and next morning I'm going down to breakfast and run into Harry. And he said "Some lousy bugger did a trick on me last night, Bill". "What they do, Harry?" "Put somebody's teeth in my jar". So I thought, God, you know, felt in my pocket. I raced back, sure enough they were mine. So I hurried back and I said "Harry, do you mind, they're mine". He cursed and swore something terrible, you know. I don't think he ever believed that it wasn't me that did it to him. It was one of his own boys.

Where was that?


Where was that? Was that at Mexico?

No, that was in Tokyo...So that's one of the funny things that happened there.

Right. Right... So at least you mixed up teeth and not horses. You could tell your horses apart. What - what happened in Mexico? How did - see, after then you'd done a second - you'd gone to Tokyo and it hadn't gone so well...

We got a seventh in Tokyo, that was our worst.

So some people would have thought then, well look, you know, I'm getting on a bit now, maybe I'll give it away.

Yes, well leading up to Mexico I keep beating them. "You're too bloody old, Bill, but if you keep winning, keep winning". And I was still winning going to Mexico. And I went with two - how many horses did I take to - I took two horses I think to Mexico. One and a spare. And Wayne, my son, he was in the team with us. Merv Bennett and one other. Oh, I forget their names now. Doesn't matter anyhow. But Mexico, I liked Mexico. Mexico, we were 60 mile, you know, away from Mexico. We weren't in the Village at Mexico. Nor were we in the Village at Tokyo. We were... Mexico was Valle de Bravo. Valle de Bravo was the name of the place. We named a horse after it when we came back. But I liked Mexico. We were billeted in the side of a hill there, our billets, and we used to have to go up these billets to sleep or get to your room. And down when you come to dine and wine. And strangely enough, you know, the high altitude, when we firstly got there just walking up that steps used to exhaust you, but while we were there for about four or five weeks, we could run up those things, you know, no worries. And it didn't affect our horses either, because we did our steeplechase a thousand feet higher than our cross-country. It didn't seem to - because our four horses that we competed on were six year old. Now today you cannot compete on a horse - not when you're getting ready to go anywhere or to compete - must be six year old. But those days we used to be able to compete on them as a five year old and that was okay. It wasn't okay overseas, but I asked them could we do it here, be ready for the Olympic Games. And it was one of those Games that will never be seen again. Where we did our cross-country we had to cross a creek, a fast flowing little creek, because it was mountainous there. It was normally flowing about five or six inches or a bit more in the creek. Beautiful little creek, and we had to cross that thing five or six times. Now, I was - about half of - half of the countries went while it was fine.

And it rained, and it poured rain, it just fell out of the sky. And I suppose in 20 minutes or so there was two inches of rain. And this high altitude, you know, from all mountainous around, that little stream become about 50 yards wide. Now you couldn't see where the little creek was. It was just a mountain of water. And I was on the steeplechase course way up above when it started, and I came down. We had a windy track down and it poured and it was hailing cold. And I turned - we came round one of these bends and the next thing I'm on the ground with my horse dragging me backwards, because when he threw me off I was - I hung on. And I looked up and there's two fellas in these big yellow, big yellow coats and trousers. And coming around the bend, you know, into the rain and that, the horse saw them and boom he was gone. And I had my head down, I didn't know what was going on, I had my head down against this terrible wind and rain. And didn't see what he what he was going to do. But if I'd have lost him there, if he'd have got away from me, I would never have caught him again. So by the time I got down to where we started the cross-country - see that was roads and tracks coming down from the steeplechase course, second roads and tracks - I was so damn cold, and there was ten minutes to go before you start your cross-country. While the vets check your horse. And the normal thing is to, before you go cross-country in case you have a fall, you go and have a pee. So right on the spot they didn't have a toilet to go, so I wandered across the road and got behind a house and didn't appear to be anybody there. So I had my pee. But I didn't have a zip fly. I had a button - buttons on the fly. I got them undone all right, but do you think I could get them done up. No bloody way could I. My hands were that cold. So I just made sure - it was all right but it was that bloody cold you know, they wouldn't have seen anything if it was hanging out. [laughs] So I go back to where we start and one of the other riders said "Bill, my shirt might be a bit drier than yours". But it wasn't much drier, but I did change it anyhow. And I couldn't very well ask him to do up my fly. So I went cross-country with my fly undone, yeah. That was okay, you know, you wouldn't have been able to see anything.

And did you win anything at the Mexico Olympics?

Yes, we jumped and we got the bronze medal there in Mexico.

And then after Mexico, there was Munich, wasn't there?


Now by this stage - by the time Munich came along, you were... ?


Well into your fifties.

Fifty-seven I was.

And you didn't think that was time to give it away?

I probably didn't even think about it, you know. And I still had - I still had a good horse and you know.

So how did - how did the team get on at Munich?

We went, we went - we went to Mexico by plane, beautiful big plane, 747. It wasn't a jumbo, but it was good. We went Honolulu - Honolulu, America, you know. That was a marvellous trip. The only time the horse feels it there, they take off suddenly you know to get the speed up straight away. And they brake steeply when they land. That's the only time the horse feels it. The rest of it they chew away at their bit of feed. And to go to Munich, they were having trouble across through the country, I think across - anyhow there was some parts that we couldn't go Singapore that way. We had to go around via - to get into England we had to go to Canada. Because America had some horse sickness, they wouldn't let us land in America. So we went to Canada, Montreal. We landed in Montreal and then took off from Montreal to London. That was the longest flight we had. We had horses here and lugged a few more in New Zealand. And we landed at one of those - what are those islands in the sea there? - and we landed in a fog. They must have marvellous navigation, you know, because we couldn't go on because we didn't have the fuel to go on... They put down in a fog and we landed safely. But they were a bit worried, though, because they had to land on instruments.

By that stage though, the planes were giving much better, smoother rides generally weren't they? Did the horses appreciate that, do you think?

Oh well, this is in those jets, no worry at all, you know. Well you were way up you know, you were up around the 36,000 feet and you're travelling at nearly a thousand miles an hour. It's marvellous.

And so how did you all get on in Munich? How did the team get on?

We stayed - we went to England and we trained for a while in England. That's when they said in Australia, I've got to have somebody, I've got to train those boys, you know, and I was supposed to be one of the boys at 57. So I wasn't going to be trained. I sent the boys with Bertie Hill for six weeks. And I did my own thing. And across we went to Munich and we weren't in - our horses were seven mile out of Munich at a little place called Riem. They built a beautiful equestrian centre there, the biggest indoor school I'd seen in the world. And lots of dressage arenas to train in. The silly damn thing about it, you know, they had all those facilities there, and for dressage the Queen went over, and some big place she was staying, she looked out the window onto the lawns. And she said "It'd be a marvellous place to see dressage done, wouldn't it?" You know, the Germans immediately changed over from doing their dressage at Riem and had the dressage done on these lawns that she thought would look beautiful. And that meant for them carting tons of sand and putting on this damn lawn. And for the horses to do it, they had to travel from Riem, through Germany to get to this damn place. You know, people are so damn stupid, aren't they?

And it was just on the Queen's say so?

Just because she - she didn't mean them to do it, but she said that, wouldn't it look beautiful, the horses doing dressage on that lawn. So they picked her up straight away and did it.

And you didn't actually win any medals at Munich, did you?

No, we didn't. We were fourth there. But that's something I live with. Mexico - not Mexico - Munich, I still wake up of a night-time, you know, sweat on my face. I said, I see it now, I can see it all the time. Never leaves me. And I'll have it until I die. I was, I was one point off winning dressage and I was sitting on a horse that could do it, no worries, it was up to Bill. Don't let him stop. You know, I got so blasé about cross-country, it was so damn easy for me, I never worried about it. Had I been worried, I wouldn't have made the mistake I made. I stopped at a simple fence. To me, I was going too damn fast, and I was bringing the horse back to a speed that I should be for the jump, and I was bringing him back too long. He thought I wanted him to stop and boom, he stopped. Now that cost me 20. And he damn well stopped at one more fence too. It was a tricky fence, the next one he stopped at. Things happened there. When Clarke finished - he was first to go of our team, Clarke was in the team with me - he was first to go. And when he finished, the authorities said he's got to be tested. Now that meant going ten mile back to Munich, back to Riem, to have him tested by doctors. And they've got to have a witness to make sure they don't put his pee in mixed up with somebody else's, or put somebody else's pee in his jar. So I said to Jack Walsh, our manager who's an old cripple, "Jack, go with him. Go back - I want to go and see such and such events because I intend to jump it another way if I can get a look at it". And he wouldn't go, he wouldn't go. He made me go with - instead of me having the time, because Clarke having just gone I had lots of time 'til I was going to go on my horse. But to go with Clarke and then spend my time with him while doctors did the job, and then catch my own horse and do my own roads and tracks and my steeplechase and my ten mile to where we did our cross-country, the only thing that I can say - blame somebody else. It'd be nice to try and blame somebody else, but it doesn't stop me from - I'll die with it because that cost me the individual gold medal. I had it sitting there, you know, right round my neck because there on the final day I jumped a clean round. And had I gone clean cross-country there you are, I had a gold medal and a silver medal for the team. You know. So now you live with one of those.

So you were beaten, you were cheated of your personal gold by doing not so well in the best part of the event, the event that you... the part that you'd always won in?

Yes, the thing that I was good at. Yeah. I was talking to the girl Mathews up when we were on that train trip in Brisbane, raising funds for Atlanta. And she was telling me about her running. She beat the Golden Girl. Every time she met that Golden Girl before 1956 she beat that girl. And on the day, on the day that she run, that she should have the gold medal, she didn't put in, she didn't put in what she could do, and she was beaten back into third place. And she said today it worries her, right up to today. And she said people even think about the - it often comes up in conversation, why didn't you? You know, the funny thing about it, or probably the great thing, I think I'd feel better if those three riders had blasted me. You know, they never, ever said a word. They never ever said "You could do it, you rotten bastard, you could have done it", you know. And I would have taken it. I wouldn't have been belting them for saying that, because I would have deserved it, you know. But just being blasé, it was easy. Had I been nervous and worried about the damn thing, I wouldn't have let it happen. All the big fences, all the big fences and the hard ones, and there was some hard ones there, I did terribly well, because I had to ride them, you know. These little ones that caught me, didn't have to, they were so damn simple.

[end of tape]

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