Anton Hegarty overcame a disabling injury to win a silver medal with the Olympic Cross-Country team in the Antwerp Olympics
The Anton Hegarty Memorial Trophy, the feature race of the North West Cross Country Championships, is run over four miles. It has been revived in the past decade and in more recent times has been named after one of Derry’s unsung sporting heroes. But who was Anton Hegarty?
'He’s the only athlete from this city ever to have won an Olympic medal,' explains athletics reporter Malcolm McCausland, who is a member of the City of Derry Spartans club.
'Our club used to be called Sparta, but no one knew where it was. We wanted to change our name to include a link to the city. I was going through some papers about an old club called City of Derry Harriers and I came upon his name,' explains Malcolm. 'I have been involved in athletics all my life and I had never heard of him.'
'It transpired that he held a silver medal that he won as part of the Great Britain cross country team. It’s an absorbing story because there is no reference to him in the book of Irish Olympians.'
It transpires that in 1919 Hegarty was one of those who helped in the founding of the Harriers club. In that same year the club was victorious in winning both the Ulster junior and senior cross country titles.
McCausland has been trying to piece together the life story of Hegarty and hopes to publish a biography of the home-grown athlete before the 2012 London Olympics. 'I feel in a way that this story has never really been told because Derry and the North West has been regarded as a bit of an athletics back water.'
Anthony Francis Hegarty is listed in the 1901 census as having lived at 10 Donegal Place in the Maiden City’s south ward. 10 year old Anthony was the sixth child of cattle dealer John and his wife Isabel Hegarty. His athletic ability was spotted during his army service, before his running career appeared to come to an abrupt end as a result of serious injury received during the disastrous campaign at Gallipoli.
'Hegarty was declared medically unfit and discharged from service,' says McCausland. 'However, within a few years of returning to Derry and getting involved in the new Harriers club, he finished second in the All Ireland Senior cross county race in Dublin.'
Ireland would not join the Olympic movement for another four years so Hegarty’s chance to run in Antwerp came when he was selected for Great Britain after romping home in the Olympic trials staged in Rugby.
'In Antwerp Anthony finished fifth behind the legendary Paavo Nurmi of Finland, but more significantly it was his performance, along with colleagues Alfred Nicholls and James Wilson, that guaranteed the Britain the team silver medal.'
However, after Antwerp the trail appears to go cold on the rest of Anton Hegarty’s career. It is known that he settled down in Rugby, but unfortunately he died in 1944 as a result of a road accident when he was knocked off his bicycle by a military lorry.
'I have been collecting as much information as I can about Hegarty. I’ve drawn a blank on where he is buried or if there is a headstone to his memory. I haven’t been able to track down what became of his medal,' says Malcolm McCausland.
'The story of Anthony Francis Hegarty deserves to be told, so that the people of Derry, and indeed everyone else, know about his place in the history of athletics.'