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Opperman, Sir Hubert Ferdinand (Oppy) (1904–1996)

by Tony Stephens

Sir Hubert Opperman has died as he would have wanted, on his bike.

One of the greatest cyclists the world has seen, Sir Hubert — or "Oppy", as he was known to Australians and the French who loved him — died on Thursday evening, apparently from a heart attack, while pedalling his exercise bicycle.

He lived with his wife of 68 years, Mavys, in a retirement village at the foot of the Dandenongs, outside Melbourne. He would have been 92 next month.

The former sporting champion and minister in the Menzies Government, who had a hand in ending the White Australia policy, took his last ride on a road two years ago, when his 50-year-old Malvern Star was hung in the museum at Rochester, his central Victorian birthplace.

"It's a relief," Lady Opperman said at the time. Sir Hubert and his bike had collided with a bus, prompting him to promise her he would give up road cycling. He could no longer bear to see the "anxious face on my darling wife".

The Oppermans met at Sunday school when he was 15 and she 12. He would keep his promise because of her sacrifices to his career, he said.

In 1988, Sir Hubert Opperman was one of 200 people named in a book, The People Who Made Australia Great.

Sixty years before, Sir Hubert was the clear winner of a Paris newspaper poll to discover the most popular sportsman in Europe. The result would, almost certainly, have been the same in Rome, Madrid or Amsterdam.

The young Opperman, more popular than the French tennis idol Jean Borotra, was smashing long-distance world cycling records with the kind of stunning superiority with which Don Bradman made centuries.

Opperman broke 58 world records in the 1920s and 1930s. People naming Australian sporting heroes usually begin with Bradman, Phar Lap, Walter Lindrum, Dawn Fraser and Opperman.

Sir Hubert weighed only 63.5 kilograms. But his lean body unleashed a sustained, relentless power that had scarcely been seen on a bike.

His other talents made him a Liberal MP for 17 years and took him into the Menzies and Holt governments as Minister for Immigration. In 1966, he was appointed Australia's first High Commissioner to Malta. Two years later he was knighted.

As Immigration Minister, Sir Hubert inaugurated the "Opperman Doctrine", enabling non-Europeans with qualifications "positively useful to Australia" to settle here. This policy also made it possible for non-Europeans to become citizens after five years' residence instead of the 15 years previously required.

Sir Hubert argued that Asian students, who had been brought up in Australia from primary to university level, must suffer intolerably when told to leave just before they became eligible for naturalisation. It was, effectively, the beginning of the end of the White Australia policy.

Born in 1904 the son of a butcher, Hubert Opperman left school to join the Post Office as a telegram boy — the job allowed him to ride a bicycle.

The event that shaped his career was winning a bicycle in an 80-mile event sponsored by the cycle trade. The prize was presented by Bruce (later Sir Bruce) Small, an enterprising cycle manufacturer who was to become Opperman's manager and, ultimately, Mayor of the Gold Coast.

In 1928, as a professional, Oppy finished a credible 17th in the Tour de France before riding to a dramatic victory in the classic Bol d'Or, a 24-hour race around a velodrome.

His most dazzling victory was in the 1931, 1,160-kilometre Paris-Brest-Paris, the world's longest non-stop road race. In Britain in 1934, he raced 1,386 kilometres from Lands End to John o'Groats, cutting four hours, 21 minutes from the record. In 1937, he broke the Fremantle-Sydney record by five days. In 1938, he held nine world records, four English road records, 13 interstate, five Australian and 32 State records.

Sir Hubert's Sydney-Melbourne record of 39 hours, 41 minutes stood for 38 years until 1967. In 1940, when he emerged from retirement, aged 36, he shattered 101 world, Australian and NSW records in 24 hours in the old Sydney Sports Arena.

Later that year he joined the RAAF as a physical training instructor. He told me two years ago this was the most rewarding thing he ever did: "I learnt there was a world outside sport."

Sir Hubert won the Victorian seat of Corio from Labor in 1949, went on to become Government Whip in 1955 and Minister for Shipping and Transport in 1960.

Sir Hubert leaves Lady Opperman, a son Ian and grandchildren.

Original publication

  • Sydney Morning Herald, 20 April 1996, p 4

Additional Resources

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Citation details

Tony Stephens, 'Opperman, Sir Hubert Ferdinand (Oppy) (1904–1996)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/opperman-sir-hubert-ferdinand-oppy-28107/text37350, accessed 11 August 2020.

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