HB woman made Games history
Hastings widow Rona McCarthy, formerly Rona Tong, was one of New Zealand’s first two female Empire Games medalists. She has fond memories of the build-up to those Games 64 years ago and is proud of her success. Doug Laing reports.
It is forever recorded in the daily papers of February 14, 1938 … the result of the 80 yards hurdles for women on the last day of the third British Empire Games at the Sydney Cricket Ground two days earlier.
Miss Burke, of South Africa, was first, Miss Grant, of Australia, second, and Miss Tong, of New Zealand, third.
The time, on a hand-held watch, was 11.7 seconds. Miss Burke won by “inches” and there was a yard between Misses Grant and Tong.
In the short descriptive of the race, in front of about 40,000 people on the last day of the Games, it tells how she narrowly held third from another Australian rival, Miss Kennedy.
Sitting in front of the TV just after Beatrice “Queen Bea” Faumuina won the discus gold medal in Manchester this week, Hastings widow Rona McCarthy recalled the events of 64 years ago differently, and said later: “No. That’s wrong.”
She should know, she was there. She was “Miss” Tong and she won the somewhat weighty bronze medal.
Somehow, the seeming error is almost a symbol of how the Games, long-since known as the Commonwealth Games, have changed. Not even the result is the same.
For the record, Barbara Burke, of South Africa, did, indeed win, and set a new Games record – a not unusual feat at what were, after all, only the third Empire Games. But the runner-up was Clarise Kennedy, of Australia.
Not even the event was the same. There hasn’t been an 80 yards event since the Games went metric in the 1960s.
The event this week was 100 metres (109 yards 1 foot and 2 inches), almost two-fifths longer, and the time, run by the winning Jamaican was 12.77secs.
There was no big screen and no small screen back home, for that matter. If there had been a big screen, she wouldn’t have had time to watch because she had to run back to the start to replace the divots, which she had cut out of the grass track with a bread knife she had brought from Hastings especially for the job of fashioning her starting-blocks of that era – a condition of the Games being that somehow, they be replaced in time for the next event.
It was history in the making, for Rona Tong was one of New Zealand’s first two female Empire Games medalists. On the same day, fellow Kiwi Miss Forbes or Betty as she was known in the New Zealand team of 68 competitors and officials, had finished third in the “running high jump”.
Had she been competing in the year 2002 and her personal circumstances been similar, she may well have made quite a story, for she was a pioneer in women’s hurdling in New Zealand, having tired of straight-out sprints.
“Hurdling wasn’t done in New Zealand,” she said.
She began developing her skills under the guidance of her father on the grass at Nelson Park, in Hastings. There was no-one else to compete against, apart from the national men’s champion and her only Hawke’s Bay teammate at the Sydney Games, Frank Sharpley, and other male competitors.
Her first trips to hurdling around the country were to do exhibitions, in Dunedin, Rotorua and Wanganui.
In the Games team trials for the hurdles event – it was still not a national championship event for women – she fell in the first heat.
However, her ability was allowed to run in the final at the trial, and was selected for the Games. She was also part of the 4x100yds women’s relay team, which finished fourth. To get to Sydney meant a four-day journey aboard the Wanganella.
There was not necessarily any hint Miss Tong would be in the medals. There was some news on the cable pages about other hurdler’s times, but Miss Tong was more worried about finishing.
“You had to be lucky not to touch a hurdle,” she said. “If you got to the tape still standing up, you had a chance.”
At the time she was 21 and working at Bon Marche, in Hastings. Her training included biking to and from work, and at least an hour a day at the park – a schedule which made her too busy to celebrate her 21st birthday until after she returned from Sydney.
In the shadow of success was disappointment, for she was looking forward to the 1940 Olympics in Tokyo when World War 2 broke out and the Olympics were scrapped.
She had faced a similar disappointment in 1936 when she was selected for the New Zealand netball team (known then as basketball) to tour Australia, but the tour was cancelled after the two countries couldn’t agree on how many players could be on the court for each team. +
In New Zealand, the game was played seven-a-side, but the Australians wanted to stick to their nine.
She was also selected for an athletics tour of Australia in 1939, but that was cancelled because of an epidemic.
Remaining at home while new husband Les served in the Middle East during the war, she was not discouraged and spent more than 40 years involved in sport, coaching in both athletics and netball.
She still has her medal and 1938 Games team kit of black blazer (yes, it still fits) and a team singlet clearly designed for the male members of the team.
Her long service to sport was recognised in 1979 with an MBE.
Photo captions –
RONA McCarthy (nee Tong), of Hastings, trains before the 1938 British Empire Games.
RONA TONG, with her memorabilia from the 1938 Games. she now enjoys the technology of TV for viewing the Games.
RONA waits to be presented with her bronze medal.