Exit Menu

Turning steel into gold – Sheffield's extraordinary place in the history of the Olympic Games


From the promising young runner trained by his father on the hills around his home to become a world-beater, to the 19th century politician who barricaded British borders to immigrants while advocating international brotherhood - Sheffield shares a remarkable relationship with the Olympic Games.

The politician - Sir Charles Vincent, MP for Sheffield Central - would be instrumental in popularising the Games in the early 20th century despite his conservative views.

The young hill runner, Sebastian Coe, would not only go onto become a four-time Olympic medallist but a key component of London’s successful Olympic bid in 2012.

Both are examples of Sheffield’s special place in the history of the event, something that Brunel academic Gary Armstrong and historian Matthew Bell draw upon in their new book Steel and Grace: Sheffield’s Olympic Track and Field Medallists.

The book dissects the Steel City’s influence on past Olympics and examines those athletes who celebrated success against the backdrop of political events that helped fashion international history: in Berlin, as Hitler demonstrated his Nazi might; in Munich, when terrorists murdered 11 Israeli athletes; and in Moscow, as British athletes competed at the height of the Cold War.

Dr Armstrong, Reader in Social Sciences at Brunel University London, said: “Sheffield’s contribution to the Olympic Games over the years is incredible. There are those exceptional athletes whose names are synonymous with Olympic glory, such as Seb Coe and Jessica Ennis-Hill, and those who’ve been sadly forgotten in time.

“This book remembers the ordinary people - the miners, grocers and teachers – who devoted themselves to their Olympic dream even when history was against them. These are tales of great sportsmanship, fierce rivalry, heartbreak and joy, and they each highlight the value of Sheffield’s contribution to the greatest show on earth.”

Matthew Bell added: “Researching the feats of sadly forgotten Sheffield Olympic athletes was fascinating. Steel and Grace brings their wonderful achievements back to life.”

Steel and Grace recounts stories of a city which, as far back as 1850, invited elite athletes from across the UK to race at a series of events under the catch-all title ‘pedestrianism’.

It remembers Ernie ‘Evergreen’ Harper, whose commitment to training helped him finish an Olympic race that nearly killed several of his rivals; and John and Sheila Sherwood, two South Yorkshire schoolteachers who, against the odds and with inadequate training facilities, picked up medals in Mexico City in 1968 and would go on to challenge Olympic authorities so that their successors wouldn’t be put in the same position.

Steel and Grace: Sheffield’s Olympic Track and Field Medallists by Matthew Bell and Gary Armstrong is published by Bennion Kearny on 30 October 2014. More details are available here.