Local resident Bob Gardiner is an ex-Olympian with many tales from a long and successful career as a harrier (cross-country walker). He carried on a family tradition; his father Bert was a wellknown and successful walker with achievements including the 1925 Australasian 7 Mile Championship.
The first Olympics that Bob took part in was the Melbourne Games in 1956. He did not compete but was an official, working on a “Feeding Station” for the marathon and 50km walks – a green line was painted along Dandenong Road to Oakleigh and back for the competitors to follow. The Feeding Station was, in his words, a “bit of a shemozzle”. This was before the days of Performance Sports drinks and each station had an urn (powered by a kind neighbour), paper cups set up along the table, and tea or coffee. The instruction was “Send somebody up the road to ask them what they want”. This was the days when the Cold War was at its height. “You’d ask a Russian if they’d like tea or coffee and they couldn’t understand you; then they’d come and knock all the cups over because they didn’t want anyone else to get them!”
Following the Games, Bob continued to run and when race wins became more frequent he began to train with the Olympics in mind, walking to and from work in South Melbourne. There was no money in those days – one wasn’t allowed to accept sponsorship.
“In ’56, just prior to the games, a few of us who raced in the trials were interviewed on television and were given a £10 fee for doing it, but I couldn’t take it because I would have been banned. You were allowed a trophy (maximum value £25), but it had to be something useless – you couldn’t have anything of practical value. “Having said that, I came through the best era. Prior to the ’56 Games, anyone in an overseas team had to raise the bulk of their own money and even had to buy their uniforms in some cases. But from ’56 onwards the teams were fully funded; we even got a pound a day to cover personal expenses.”
In 1964 Bob won the 50km walk trial, and made the team for the Tokyo Olympics. After being selected for the team, athletes were measured for and received their uniforms; but, as Bob says, “It didn’t really sink in until I walked into Essendon Airport and was surrounded by all the others wearing their green blazers”.
The Australian Olympic team for Tokyo was quite large [Ed. 203 men, 40 women] and they flew in a charter plane, “As soon as we got on board, everyone grabbed the blankets and changed into their track suits. The swimmer girls slept in the luggage racks, and everyone else was lying on the floor along the aisle, so to go to the toilet you had to walk along the arms of the seats!”
Arriving in Japan was just as exciting. “After leaving the airport we jumped into buses and drove to the Olympic Village, which was flanked with all the flags of the competing nations. All the people in their colourful track suits and some in their national dress really made you realise that this was a great international event.”
The Tokyo Olympic Village was a former American army base so most dwellings were one- or two-storeys, set in pleasant bush surroundings. It was a large area, with plenty of room to train, and the Japanese organisers provided free bikes for competitors. Bob’s billet was on the second floor in a two-room suite shared with three distance runners – they were in one room, while Bob had the second to himself. The press were hounding Ron Clarke so Trevor Vincent, one of Bob’s room-mates, asked if Ron could have Bob’s room to get a little peace. “So I became Ron Clarke for a while – I slept in his bed and he slept in mine! Olympians had to stick together!”
One day Bob was sitting in the garden when his roommates got back from a run. One of them, Tony Cook, kept on running up and down. “What are you doing, Tony?” asked Bob. “I said I was going to run for an hour,” responded Tony. “It’s only been 55 minutes”. That’s what made an Olympian!
Bob produced many world-class times between 1960 and 1972. He produced his best in the Australian Championships where he won 16 medals including 8 golds.
He held the Australian 2 miles, 20km and 50km titles, the only Australian to hold all titles concurrently. It was not until 1977 that this feat was equalled.
In his 55th year he achieved world class times in his age division by setting world veteran 5000m and 20km records at the Australian Veteran Championships. He is still an active walker and is in his 66th year as a competitor. A constant supporter of the VRWC, Bob’s services to the club were recognised with a life membership award in 1987 (he is also a life member of Collingwood Harriers).