by Chris Tobin
Timaru stands out for a number of reasons. For sports followers it is because of the statues the town has erected to remember three of its sports stars.
Bob Fitzsimmons, the Cornwall-born, Timaru-raised blacksmith who ventured off to the United States via Australia in the 1880s to pursue his pugilistic career, was the first to be given this honour.
Boxing aficionado Sir Bob Jones, who then owned land in central Timaru, commissioned and paid for the statue which stands on the Strathallan St corner in downtown Timaru.
Prime Minister David Lange unveiled the statue in 1987, just over 90 years after Fitzsimmons famously won the world heavyweight boxing title at Carson City, Nevada.
Only the persuasive powers of Sir Bob, the fact he owned the land at the statue site, and his cash allowed it to happen.
The plan to erect a statue in the central part of town to remember a boxer was not without its critics in the 1980s.
Statues were usually erected to remember people prominent in the more “elevated” areas of life.
Jones commissioned Dutch-born Margriet Windhausen to create the Fitzsimmons statue, which was probably the first public statue in New Zealand for a sports person.
Years later she was tapped on the shoulder to sculpt another famous Timaru sports figure, Jack Lovelock, the 1936 Olympic Games 1500m champion.
Joe Wilson, like Lovelock, an old boy of Timaru Boys’ High School, wanted the famous runner to be commemorated at the school.
Then in ailing health, Wilson provided money for the project. In 2002, the same year Wilson died, Timaru had its second sports sculpture when the Lovelock statue was unveiled outside Timaru Boys’ Memorial Library.
Next came the galloping great, Phar Lap, although the pride of the Australasian turf already had a whitestone statue on the Seadown site where it had been foaled.
However, the Phar Lap Trust wanted something special and in 2009 at the local racecourse, Timaru mayor Janie Annear unveiled sculptor Joanne Sullivan-Giessler’s outstanding $500,000 bronze statue of Phar Lap at full gallop with jockey Jim Pike aboard.
It is, arguably, the best sports statue in the country – although there are still relatively few.
Eden Park in Auckland has statues to All Blacks Dave Gallaher and Michael Jones. Auckland also has statues of athletics’ John Walker and Arthur Lydiard and one of racehorse Bonecrusher at Ellerslie.
Elsewhere around the country, Opunake has a statue for its hometown boy, Peter Snell, and shortly before he died in 2017 one was erected for Colin Meads in Te Kuiti.
With its three outstanding sports statues, Timaru stands out in New Zealand.
Yet the country lags behind others in putting up statues for their sports stars.
“There are some very large clusters of statues at sports stadia, especially in American baseball and Australian cricket, but not so many civic statues,” English academic Dr Chris Stride says.
Dr Stride is one of a group of academics at the University of Sheffield in England recording and researching statues of sportsmen and women from around the world.
Since 2010 they have published academic papers and collected information on more than 600 sports statues.
He says towns of similar size to Timaru in other countries have statues of their sports stars.
“The reason for this, I believe, is that small towns have a greater need to shout their identity than world cities, and public art celebrating home town is one obvious option.
“Big cities do have statues, but have a bigger pool of candidates and capital cities often celebrate national heroes, widening the pool further.”
Dr Stride says there are several small towns in the UK with similar clusters to Timaru’s.
“Dudley and the surrounding small towns in the West Midlands have been putting up sports statues for several years now; likewise Tameside Borough in East Manchester.
“Likewise, Merthyr in South Wales has statues of three world class boxers from the town. Barrow has footballer Emlyn Hughes and rugby league player Willie Horne.
“All four of these areas had traditional industries that gave them clear identities. Dudley had iron and steel; Barrow was shipbuilding; Tameside was cotton; and Merthyr, coal mining. But these industries declined or disappeared, leaving rather depressed areas.
“Sports heritage is seen as a way of offering a positive view of the town’s heritage and to show that the town can produce heroes.
“Notably these areas have also received various government grants for revitalisation, so some of that no doubt finds its way into the civic arts budget.”
Some of the biggest sports stars have more than one statue erected to remember their deeds, Dr Stride says.
In the United States, baseball’s Ted Williams has six statues, Babe Ruth four; in Australia, cricketer Sir Don Bradman has four statues, but no-one can match footballer Pele.
“Pele’s hometown has several statues of him,” says Dr Stride, “plus statues of his mum, his dad and him as a boy.”