Olympics and Olympians

In a few days’ time we’re going to publish our story on the Olympic and Commonwealth games, just in time for the opening of the London Olympics. But we already have quite a bit of information on New Zealand’s involvement in the Olympics, especially in biographies of Olympic athletes from the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, and also on our sister site, NZHistory.

New Zealand has a long history of involvement in the Olympic Games, starting in London in 1908, when three athletes competed as part of an ‘Australasian’ team. Success came early when Harry Kerr finished third in the 3,500-metre walk, becoming New Zealand’s first Olympic medallist. Since then, the hopes of the nation have been carried by some extraordinary people both on and off the sports field.

At Stockholm in 1912, freestyle swimmer Malcolm Champion became the first New Zealander to win an Olympic gold medal, albeit swimming as part of an Australasian team in the 4 x 200-metre relay alongside three Australian team mates.

One of our greatest ever athletes, Anthony Wilding, only managed a bronze medal at the same games. However, between 1907 and 1914 he was Wimbledon singles champion four times, Wimbledon doubles champion four times, and Davis Cup champion (again as part of an Australasian team) four times. Sadly, like many of his generation, Wilding was killed in action in the First World War, on 9 May 1915 during the Battle of Aubers Ridge at Neuve-Chapelle, France.

Violet Walrond, New Zealand's first woman Olympian

Violet Walrond, New Zealand's first woman Olympian (click for image credit)

The first official New Zealand team headed to Antwerp in 1920, with four athletes including 15-year-old swimmer Violet Walrond, our first female Olympian, who finished fifth in the 100-metre freestyle final.

At the 1924 Paris Olympics New Zealand runner Arthur Porritt won bronze in the 100-metre sprint. He finished behind Englishman Harold Abrahams and American Jackson Scholz in a race immortalised in the 1981 film Chariots of fire. Allegedly out of modesty, Porritt refused permission for his name to be used in the film so his character was renamed ‘Tom Watson’. Porritt went on to manage the 1936 New Zealand Olympic team and later in life was appointed New Zealand’s governor general.

Our first gold medallist was boxer Ted Morgan. Although selected as a lightweight, Morgan put on weight during the voyage from New Zealand and had to box in the welterweight class against opponents somewhat heavier than him.

Ted Morgan, Olympic gold medallist

Ted Morgan, Olympic gold medallist (click for image credit)

The Olympics have given us stories of triumph, from the overlooked walker Norman Read, to the renowned long jumper Yvette Williams. And stories of tragedy, especially that of Jack Lovelock, 1936 Olympic champion whose tragic death 13 years later still inspires both speculation and artistic interpretation.

Often the unsung heroes of most sporting endeavours are the coaches and administrators, and New Zealand has had its fair share of characters there too. Longtime New Zealand Rugby Football Union member Ces Blazey also served 24 years on the New Zealand Olympic and Commonwealth Games Association as a member of its council.

Then there was the man who presided over New Zealand’s golden era in track and field during the 1960s, Arthur Lydiard. The highlight of his own running career came when he was selected for the 1950 Auckland Empire Games marathon, though he came a disappointing 13th. Lydiard started coaching in 1953, and his methods saw gold medal success at the 1960 Rome Olympics for Peter Snell (800 metres) and Murray Halberg (5,000 metres), and bronze for Barry Magee in the marathon. Snell went on to double gold at the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo.

Since 1908 more than 1,000 athletes have represented New Zealand at the Olympic Games and most of them haven’t been podium winners. But occasionally an exceptional athlete has, for one reason or another, not even attended the games, such as runner Randolph Rose, arguably our greatest ever non-Olympian.

These are just a sample of the Olympic stories you can uncover on Te Ara, the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, and NZHistory. And no doubt some more stories will be made over the next couple of weeks as 184 athletes represent New Zealand at the 2012 London Olympics.

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