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Sir William Northam CBE

1905 – 1988

Sir William Northam CBE (1905-1988), yachtsman, won the gold medal in the 5.5 m class event at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Having taken up yachting in 1951, when he was 46, he sailed on Sir Frank Packer's boat Gretel in the Americas Cup challenge of 1962. The following year he commissioned the 5.5 m Barrenjoey, the boat in which he was to sail in Tokyo. There with crewmen Dick Sargeant and Pod O'Connell Northam won the first, fourth and fifth races and in a notable act of good sportsmanship disqualified himself in the sixth. At the end of the final race the 59 year old grandfather of five had won the gold by almost 700 points, becoming the oldest Australian Olympic gold medallist and the first Australian to win in yachting. (Northam is sometimes named as the oldest Olympic gold medallist, but Sweden's Oscar Swahn won a gold medal for shooting in 1912 at the age of 64.) He celebrated by downing a good deal of vodka and later admitted he had difficulty standing on the dais to collect his medal. Following his victory he became a celebrity in Japan where he was called Ogesan ('old man'); in Australia he was promptly and predictably dubbed 'the old man of the sea' and named Australian Yachtsman of the Year for 1964/5. In 1965, when he finished his nine-year term as Alderman of the City of Sydney, he was named Father of the Year. Northam was a company director for FJ Walker and Penfolds Wines and chaired and served on a number of charitable and sporting committees and councils, notably the Olympic Games Funds Committee. He was knighted in 1976. A model of Barrenjoey sails in a pond in the grounds of Sydney University, and a street in Sydney's Olympic Village was named after Northam.

Updated 2018