Obituary: Helen Rollason

Adam Szreter
Tuesday 10 August 1999 00:02

"I LOVE everything about being in the world," Helen Rollason said shortly before the final round of her two-year fight with cancer. "Giving up is not an option in my book."

Her career as a pioneering female television sports presenter - in 1990 she was the first woman to anchor the BBC's flagship sports programme Grandstand - prepared her well for the rigours of the war she waged against the opinions of surgeons who repeatedly told her that time was up.

She was diagnosed as suffering from cancer of the colon and liver in August 1997 and given three months to live. Five months and two operations later she was back at work. After a third operation the following March, she was given until Septem-ber 1998. Then in July this year she was told she would not make it to the weekend, but a week later she was at Buckingham Palace to receive her insignia as MBE from the Queen.

In dying, even more than in living her life to the full, Rollason displayed an optimism and good humour that humbled those around her and gradually touched the consciousness not only of armchair sports fans but of a wider audience who marvelled at her stamina.

Just four months after her illness was first diagnosed, she sent Christmas cards to colleagues with the message "Slapheads are in this year", referring to the hair loss her treatment caused. Despite sessions of debilitating chemotherapy, she continued to present BBC2's Sport on Friday and until May appeared on Saturday evening sports bulletins after working a 10-hour shift. Then she won a contract to present the Friday sports preview on the revamped BBC Six O'Clock News and in the meantime embarked on two sports documentaries, various newspaper and magazine columns, as well as a book about her illness.

"I'm working because I love it, and because I feel best on the days when I'm busy," she said. She also launched the Helen Rollason Cancer Care Appeal, trying to raise pounds 5m for the North Middlesex Hospital where she received most of her treatment.

She was born Helen Grindley in London in 1956 and grew up in Bath, the second of three children, her adoptive father and mother a scientist and science teacher respectively. As a child, she "just ran and ran and ran", determined to make up for what she lacked in stature (at 5ft 11/2in) with sheer enthusiasm. "Being small has always been an asset," she claimed. "People want to protect you."

She attended Bath High School for Girls, played hockey for Somerset and was a member of Bath Athletic Club before moving to Eastbourne to study physical education at the Chelsea School, where she was vice-president of the Students' Union. She became a PE teacher for three years, during which time, in 1980, she married John Rollason, also a teacher.

Her career in journalism began that year with Essex Radio, before she moved on to Channel Four, Thames Television and then the BBC children's news programme Newsround. But breaking down the chauvinistic barriers of television sports coverage, its male-dominated content as well as its presentation, became her vocation.

At that time the concept of female sports presenters lacked credibility, but gradually Rollason's brand of down-to-earth presentation, allied with her love of sport, won the men over and paved the way for others. "Many people assume I must be ambitious," she once said. "Ambition is the wrong word. Passion is the right one. For me sport is a passion, my work, my hobby."

Apart from promoting women's sport whenever possible, her particular interests were disabled sport, from which she said she drew immense inspiration for her own plight later on, and athletics. "I grew up with athletics," she said. "It's in my soul. Lilian Board [the British Olympic silver medallist who died of cancer at the age of 22], ironically enough, was one of my heroines."

Rollason's daughter Nikki was born in 1982 but in 1990 her marriage ended in divorce. Her career, though, was going from strength to strength. For her work on Sport on Friday, Breakfast News, Grandstand and at the Atlanta Olympics and Paralympics, she was named Sports Presenter of the Year in 1996.

However the eight weeks' work that year in the heat and humidity of Atlanta took its toll on her. She began to suffer headaches, migraine and sleepless nights. She grew unusually tired and developed an allergy to alchohol - "And that's a dilemma because I love a drink." Eventually, and somewhat belatedly, owing to a healthy outward appearance, the cancer was diagnosed and she spent six weeks in hospital.

After the third operation, early in 1998, she was advised to stop the chemotherapy and just enjoy her last few months, but not for the first time Rollason defied accepted wisdom and soldiered on, for the sake of her daughter as much as herself. Together they went, faces painted, to follow England in the World Cup in France last summer and although hair loss and a bloated figure undoubtedly distressed Rollason, her stoicism became more and more remarkable.

Last October, on a programme to mark the 40th anniversary of Grandstand, she commented: "I'd fail any drugs test." However, she was at a loss for words when, after an unexpected tribute to her in the Sports Review of the Year programme two months later, the camera lingered on her almost tearful face during a bout of prolonged applause.

Meanwhile, with the help of holistic therapies and a special diet, her battle with conventional medicine continued. "I believe in the power of the mind over the body," she said. "When you're embarrassed you blush. That's your head telling your body how you feel. If your mind is strong enough to make you blush, surely it can influence the way you act physically."

Earlier this year, however, the cancer spread to her lungs and lymph nodes and by the end of last month she had become so ill that a ceremony to award her an Honorary Doctorate from Brighton University had to be held at her home.

Affectionately known to friends as "Bucket", which came about after a beach prank as a child when a bucket got stuck on her head, Rollason, a talented painter and keen golfer, described herself as a "typical Piscean - I'm sensitive, artistic, emotional and I care too much about what other people think".

What other people thought was more or less summed up by Huw Richards, a colleague in the BBC newsroom: "Her hallmarks are modesty and generosity and they explain her tremendous popularity among colleagues and the viewing public."

Helen Grindley, sports journalist: born London 11 March 1956; MBE 1999; married 1980 John Rollason (one daughter; marriage dissolved 1990); died Shenfield, Essex 9 August 1999.

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