Faster, higher, stronger: New Zealand at the Olympics

by Peter Clayworth and Andy Palmer

New Zealand's rowing eights with their gold medals, 1972 (click for image credits)

New Zealand's rowing eights with their gold medals, 1972 (click for image credit)

The 30th Olympic Games begins in London this Friday. To mark the occasion, Te Ara has just launched its story on the Olympic and Commonwealth games. Written by renowned sports writer Joseph Romanos, it covers a century of New Zealand’s involvement in the games. It sets out the achievements of our athletes, including many of the fascinating stories behind their triumphs and tragedies at the games.

New Zealand athletes first competed at the 1908 London Olympics. The three New Zealanders were part of a combined Australasian team, with Harry Kerr winning our first medal, a bronze in the 3,500-metre walk. The 1908 team marched in the opening ceremony behind an Australian flag, but the flag bearer was New Zealand hurdler Henry Murray.

From 1920 New Zealand entered its own teams in the Olympics. At the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics welterweight boxer Ted Morgan was the first member of a New Zealand team to win a gold medal. Morgan remains our only boxing gold medallist, but light-heavyweight boxer Kevin Barry was awarded a silver medal in highly controversial circumstances. At the 1984 Los Angeles games, Barry fought in the semi-final against the great American boxer Evander Holyfield, the favourite to win the gold medal. Barry was clearly outmatched and near the end of the second round was floored. As Holyfield’s knockout punch was thrown after the referee had called a break, the American was promptly disqualified. The mostly local crowd was outraged; the boxers and the referee had to be escorted from the ring by police. The match was awarded to Barry, but as a knockout victim he could not box in the final. He was therefore automatically awarded the silver medal. Barry went on to manage heavyweight boxer David Tua, who had been the bronze medallist at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.

For New Zealanders the highlight of the 1936 Berlin Olympics was Jack Lovelock‘s victory in the 1,500 metres. Berlin was also notable for political controversy, with the games being used as a propaganda showcase for the Nazi regime. In the USA there was serious debate on whether to boycott the games in protest at Nazi anti-Semitism. In the end American athletes, including the great Jesse Owens, did compete at Berlin.

Political controversies have continued to dog the Olympics. New Zealand became the target of a boycott movement in 1976, as African countries withdrew from the Montreal Olympics in protest at the tour of South Africa, then under an apartheid regime, by the All Black rugby team. John Walker‘s triumph at Montreal, winning the gold medal in the 1,500 metres, was somewhat dimmed by the absence of top African runners.

At the 1952 Helsinki Olympics Yvette Williams won the long jump, the first gold medal for a New Zealand woman athlete. Her first two attempts were ‘no jumps’, so Williams third jump was a do-or-die effort. Williams also came 10th in the discus and sixth in the shot put. Her long jump victory remained New Zealand’s only gold medal in field events until Valerie Adams (at that time Valerie Vili) won the shot put gold at Beijing in 2008.

The rowing eight won New Zealand’s only gold medal at the 1972 Munich Olympics. Their triumph is remembered as much for events at the medal ceremony as for those on water. For the first time ‘God defend New Zealand‘ was played at the ceremony in place of ‘God save the Queen’. This was not, however, the first time ‘God defend New Zealand’ had been played at the Olympics. When Yvette Williams was awarded her gold medal in 1952, the Finnish band played both ‘God save the Queen’ and ‘God defend New Zealand.

New Zealand's sailing medallists, 1992: (L–R) Leslie Egnot, Rod Davis, Don Cowie, Craig Monk and Jan Shearer. (Click for image credit)

New Zealand's sailing medallists, 1992: (L–R) Leslie Egnot, Rod Davis, Don Cowie, Craig Monk and Jan Shearer. (Click for image credit)

New Zealand has achieved a high proportion of its gold medal victories on the water, with wins in rowing, canoeing, boardsailing and yachting. In a strange case at the 1984 Los Angeles games, Russell Coutts almost missed out on the gold medal for the Finn class competition. The rules stated that sailors had to have less than 20 kilograms of gear. At the end of the races the judges were preparing to disqualify Coutts as his wet gear was just over the allowable limit. Coutts had to carefully dry out his gear and reweigh it. As it then came in just under the 20-kilogram limit he was awarded the gold medal.

One of the best New Zealand Olympic stories must be that of the unexpected victory of the 1976 men’s hockey team. After coming second in their pool, the team beat the Netherlands 2–1 in the semi-finals and came up against Australia in the final. At half-time the teams were locked at 0–0, but seven minutes into the second half captain Tony Ineson scored the only goal of the game to get New Zealand the gold medal.

Remarkably, prior to the games, the team wasn’t considered a medal prospect. Equally remarkable is the fact that five members of the team were coached by Canterbury coach Cyril Walter. But the most remarkable aspect of this story is that the New Zealand team had to desperately defend their lead in the closing minutes of the game, none more valiantly than goalie Trevor Manning, who played the last 10 minutes with a smashed kneecap.

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