Helen Rollason was a remarkable woman. She became one of the UK’s most popular sports TV presenters before her fight against cancer inspired millions of people.
Her services to broadcasting and work for charity – which led to the formation of Helen Rollason Cancer Charity – was recognised with an MBE before she died aged just 43.
Helen Rollason (nee Grindley) was born in London, grew up in Bath and studied at Chelsea College of Physical Education, Eastbourne and Dalhousie University, in Canada.
She worked as a PE teacher, was a member of Bath Athletics Club, and played hockey at county level. She was, quite simply, a self confessed sports nut.
Her broadcasting career began when she joined Essex Radio in 1980. She quickly became deputy sports editor and discovered the difficulties and tensions of moving into a male, sporting world. Breaking down the chauvinistic barriers became her vocation.
She went on to produce sports programmes for Channel 4 and then ITV where her coverage included the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul.
Helen joined BBC Sport in 1990 to present Sport On Friday and was the first woman to anchor the BBC’s flagship sport programme Grandstand.
Between 1990 and 1996, she was a key member of the BBC team at the Barcelona Olympics, Atlanta Olympics and the Commonwealth Games in Canada.
While maintaining a hectic sport broadcasting schedule, Helen also fronted the BBC1 children’s programme, Newsround, for three years before joining the Six O’Clock News team, for which she presented a weekly sport news bulletin.
Helen was diagnosed with cancer of the colon, and later of the liver and lungs, in August 1997, yet she maintained a considerable workload throughout her illness.
Throughout her 50 sessions of chemotherapy, and despite losing her hair and energy from the treatment, she never missed a day at work.
I’m working because I love it, and because I feel best on the days when I’m busy
She was greatly admired by her colleagues and friends for the incredible tenacity she demonstrated. She never made a fuss over her illness and even joked about glowing from the chemotherapy:
I reckon I must affect every piece of electrical equipment I go past.
In 1997, she launched the Helen Rollason Cancer Care Appeal, trying to raise £5m for a new cancer wing at the North Middlesex Hospital where she received most of her treatment.
Her hallmarks are modesty and generosity and they explain her tremendous popularity among colleagues and the viewing public.Huw Edwards – Helen Rollason BBC Colleague
One of the most touching moments of her career came during the BBC Sports Review Of The Year programme in December 1998, when Rollason’s colleagues paid her a special tribute, which produced the longest and most spontaneous applause of the evening.
It must have been awful for people at home. How boring!
I was embarrassed and thought I was going to cry, but I was touched that my colleagues did that.
Shortly before she died she was awarded an MBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours in recognition of her services to broadcasting and charity.
I cried when I received the news, I don’t feel I deserve it but I’m very thrilled that so many women are coming through in sports broadcasting now.
Just before the final round of her two year fight with cancer, Helen reflected:
When you get older, if ever you get cynical, look back and remember how people cared. I’ve seen how much my friends love me. I’m very lucky because most women don’t know that in all their lives, do they?
Helen lost her battle with cancer in August 1999.