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2KY Sydney The Olympian

EMIL VOIGT: the man behind the birth of radio station 2KY

by Robin Voigt
Part 1 of 5

image of Emil Voigt at the 2KY mike

Emil Voigt at the 2KY mike.
© Robin Voigt Collection

Emil Robert Voigt (1883-1973), an English born engineer, was one of the foremost pioneers of the fledgling Australian broadcasting industry in the early 1920s and the genius behind the birth of radio station 2KY.

He was the founder, chairman and general manager of radio station 2KY (1925-1935), founding chairman of the Australian Federation of Commercial Broadcasting Stations (1927-1930) and President of the Radio Manufacturers' Association of New South Wales (1928-1929). With George Taylor, he successfully campaigned in 1925 for a royal commission on wireless, opposing the monopoly held by the Government funded A-class stations, and as a result the independent commercial B-class stations were free to begin licensed operation.

Emil Voigt was a man ahead of his time. A restless, energetic intellectual he was largely self-educated. He travelled all over the world during his athletic career and later on business, and learnt to speak five languages – English, German, French, Italian and Spanish. He was a multi-faceted personality – a socialist idealist, political organiser, radio manager, engineer, writer, wrestling commentator, athlete and Olympic champion.

image of Emil Voigt, founder of 2KY

Emil Voigt, founder of 2KY
© Robin Voigt Collection

He was born on 31 January 1883 at Ardwick, Manchester, England, son of Emil Voigt senior, a German-born warehouseman and mantle salesman, and Elizabeth Voigt, nee Robb. Educated at Ross Place School, Ardwick, he was left fatherless when young and left school at only 14 years of age to look after his mother.

He initially went to work as a sign-writer for a year, then joined an engineering company making machinery for cotton mills. Able to speak German because of his father, Voigt went abroad to study in Austria in 1905-1906, also teaching English at a university there. He then moved to Northern Italy in 1907, working for a year as a correspondent for the Manchester Guardian, before he returned to England.

Golden days – his athletic career

A vegetarian, non-smoker and teetotaler, he maintained a lifelong interest in sport and keeping fit. He was particularly enthusiastic about the benefits of massage, writing a book and giving talks on the subject. He also advocated deep breathing as a means to healthy living. His diet was largely fruit, vegetables, brown bread and milk. He was described as an unassuming man with a cheerful disposition, having a small and wiry build, 5 foot 5½ inches tall, and weighing 8 stone 3lbs.

He began running in cross-country races with the Slade Harriers in England at the age of 14 and won the first race he ever entered – the four miles. Throughout that first season he was successful every time he went out to compete. He continued on for the next 10 years, in cross-country races and running with the Manchester Athletic Club.

image of Emil Voigt's 1908 Olympic Medal for the 5 Mile Race

Emil Voigt's 1908 Olympic Medal for the 5 Mile Race
© Robin Voigt

On the point of retiring from competitive athletics at the age of 25 he made a last minute decision to enter the Olympic Games in London in 1908 and ended up winning the gold medal for England in the five-mile race!

It was the only time this non-metric distance was included in the Games as at the next Olympics the race was changed into the 10,000 metres. His time of 25 minutes 11.2 seconds still stands as an Olympic record today; it can never be beaten. Voigt is also written into the record books of the Olympics for another reason – he was said to be the only vegetarian of 2059 competitors in the Games of 1908.

The Games of the IV Olympiad were originally scheduled to be held in Rome but when Mt. Vesuvius erupted in nearby Naples in April 1906 a new venue had to be found for them. Italy needed to redirect its Games funds towards the reconstruction of Naples and London was chosen to host the 1908 Olympics instead.

The story of the way Voigt won this event was nothing short of amazing and quite inspirational. With only weeks to the start of the London Olympic Games he suddenly decided that before retiring from competitive running he would like to try for success at the Games while they were being held in his home country. He asked a Manchester Club official to put him down for the Olympic Trials which were being held the next week. The official thought it was too late to have his entry accepted but sent a telegram anyway to the British selectors who were having their final meeting that night in London. The official asked Voigt what distance he would like to run and although he had been training for half mile events, on the spur of the moment he told the official to put him down for the five-mile race. He had never even attempted the five miles before but he always had the belief he could run any distance he set his mind to.

image of Emil Voigt with his Olympic Certificate

Emil Voigt with his Olympic Certificate
© Robin Voigt Collection

He was accepted as a late entry and with only one week to go before the British Trials he began to train intensively night and day for a distance event. He ran before breakfast, at lunchtime and up to nine o'clock at night. On the day of the British Trials he took the train down to London and won the race, and so was accepted into the Olympic Games.

Voigt was unknown on the international scene as he had never competed in Europe or at that distance before, consequently no-one outside of England had heard of him. The Olympic Games got underway and he easily won his heat but disastrously broke down after the race because of the rigorous training he had been undergoing leading into the Games. The arch of his foot had collapsed due to torn muscles. It was thought that he would have to withdraw from the finals but never one to quit, he decided to see a specialist. He caught a train across London and had a special plaster of Paris arch support built overnight to wear inside his running shoe.

With only one day in between to rest before the finals, Voigt lined up for the race. Not knowing whether he would be able to finish, he ran through the pain for the first mile or two, clumping along with the uncomfortable plaster cast in his shoe. He said he was surprised to see that he seemed to be passing everyone, so doggedly ran on and thought he'd "just keep running and see what happened". He ended up winning the event in spectacular fashion by 70 yards. The unknown little Englishman had come out of nowhere in the finals to beat the world's best before a crowd of 80,000 people at London's Olympia. The next day the newspapers were full of his story.

After the Olympics

image of Emil Voigt in his 80's, jogging at home in Auckland, NZ

Emil in his 80's, jogging at home in Auckland, NZ.
© Robin Voigt Collection

Due to his Olympic success he put off any further thoughts of retiring for a while. He became British five-mile (1908), four-mile (1908 and 1909) and one-mile (1910) champion, and British one-mile handicap from scratch champion. In 1909 he visited Russia with a team of British athletes during an extended athletic tour which embraced several European countries. The team travelled to St Petersberg, Warsaw and Lodz. His visit to Russia was questioned some time later in Australian political circles but the tour was simply a sporting one which he took part in as reigning Olympic champion. He went on to compete in Europe in 1909 and 1910, winning medals in Finland, Sweden, Germany and France.

The year after the Olympics he was invited to tour Scandinavia by the King of Sweden and won a number of events in those countries. He designed the cinder athletic track at the famous Eläintarha Stadium (which is still in use today) in Helsinki, Finland. The legendary Paavo Nurmi was among those who set 12 records on the surface at this stadium. Later when Voigt moved to Australia, concerned by injuries to athletes on what he described as 'pony tracks' full of holes, he pressed for similar cinder tracks there. He designed a cinder circuit in Melbourne, the first of its kind in the Southern Hemisphere.

When he first came to Australia in 1911, newspaper stories described him as

"…one of the most stylish runners ever seen on the path… a brilliant middle and long distance runner… one who has seldom been equalled in the world's history for speed and stamina".

On arrival in Melbourne he joined the Malvern Harriers and was welcomed into the fold of the Victorian AAA. His first race in Australia was with the Malvern Harriers in the seven-mile road race handicap in Brighton, Victoria. He became the Australian six-mile record holder (1911), the Victorian one-mile champion (1912) and the Australian two-mile record holder (1913).

image of Robin Voigt

Robin Voigt

Robin Voigt is the granddaughter of Emil Voigt.

Five members of her family were prominent in early Australian radio.

Her father Rion Voigt was an announcer with 2KY for more than 40 years, joining the station at the age of 17 in 1932. He trained with the BBC and also worked in New Zealand with 2ZA, 2ZB and 5ZB

Her grandmother Mrs Eunice Stelzer joined 2GB at its beginning in 1926 working there for 22 years as an announcer and musical advisor. She was a popular and well known figure, founding the 2GB Happiness Club which gave assistance to people in need during the Depression years and also founding the Eurobodalla Homes

Her grandfather William Stelzer worked at 2GB as well, in charge of the station's advertising for 20 years

Her aunt Joy Moorhouse started work at 2GB at the age of 15 in 1932 and worked there for 50 years. She was the station's first receptionist and telephonist and later went on to work with many famous names as a producer of the first open line/ talkback programmes in 1966.

Robin lives in Sydney and is a graphic designer, illustrator and writer.

Copyright © 2006 Robin Voigt

All rights reserved. No part of this story may be reproduced, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, recording or otherwise, without the written permission of the author.

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