Quietly spoken writer became legend

Keeping track of yet another club rugby game.
Keeping track of yet another club rugby game.
Former Otago Daily Times sports reporter Alistair McMurran holding a Murray Webb caricature on his last day at the ODT. Photos: ODT files
Former Otago Daily Times sports reporter Alistair McMurran holding a Murray Webb caricature on his last day at the ODT. Photos: ODT files
Competing in a running event in the 1980s
Competing in a running event in the 1980s
Lighting the flame at the New Zealand Masters Games in 2012.
Lighting the flame at the New Zealand Masters Games in 2012.

Ali McMurran was not a big man, but he was a giant of the Otago sporting community. Former colleague Hayden Meikle tries his best to encapsulate the life and service of a special man.

It was Brent Edwards, the late and much respected Otago Daily Times sports editor blessed with the gift of knowing just the right words to use, who coined the perfect description for his wise and wonderful bearded colleague.

Ali McMurran was ''the Peter Pan of New Zealand sports writing,'' Edwards wrote in a tribute piece after Ali received the services to sport honour at the Otago Sports Awards in 2008.

That spoke to Ali's free spirit, his youthfulness, his ability to turn his hand to everything and, above all, his beautifully child-like ability to find delight in the little things.

We are taught, as journalists, to avoid certain words. One on the blacklist is ''unique'' - it is over-used, and nothing is really unique any more. But Ali WAS unique. There has never been anyone quite like this gentle, unassuming soul with the perpetual smile who made a huge contribution to this newspaper and the Otago community.

He was a colossus of sports journalism, serving in the ODT sports department from 1975 to 2014 before continuing as a freelance writer in his retirement. That was his public face. Behind the scenes, he was an athletics coach good enough to play a massive role in preparing Dick Tayler for his Commonwealth Games gold medal in 1974.

A lifelong bachelor, Ali's children were the hundreds of athletes he mentored and inspired over half a century at the old and new Caledonian Grounds and across the hills around Dunedin.

Through his reporting and his coaching, Ali's passion for sport - and the huge value it could provide to the Otago community - was released in a calm, caring manner.

Quietly spoken - those who knew him well can do impressions of his signature ''oh, oh, oh'' with varying degrees of success - Ali never had a cross word to say about anyone. He only appeared to get slightly testy when pressed for details of his age. And Ali, my old friend, sincere apologies for revealing you were 80 when you died suddenly while walking a Mt Cook track on November 28.

Ali's impact on the Otago sporting community is best assessed by his close friend, rugby commentator and former athlete Paul Allison.

''Ali is an indelible part of the fabric of Otago sport, and will always hold a special place in my life,'' Allison said.

''Since meeting him in 1975, he became my coach, mentor, neighbour and dear friend. Ali is the person who has probably influenced me the most by instilling that anything is possible with self-belief, confidence and hard work.

''He was like a surrogate father to me and probably to so many others. He was humble, wise, caring, generous and always so very positive.

''His contribution has been immense. I can't think of anyone who has had a bigger impact on community sport in Otago than Ali over the past half century.''

Ali's first day at the ODT as a fulltime reporter was August 4, 1975, having previously served as a part-time athletics correspondent.

For 40 years, he was a tireless and vital contributor to the newspaper's sports pages. He shunned the limelight, preferring to focus the readers' attention on the athletes and sports, and showed a rare ability to squeeze a good story out of reticent subjects. He had empathy for those he covered, huge respect for history and tradition, and passion for the grassroots of the various codes he covered.

His most prominent reporting role was in club rugby. Readers got used to the phrase ''since the ODT started keeping detailed records of club rugby in 1976'' - that was when Ali began assiduously keeping statistics in a series of battered notebooks - and the sight of Ali, binoculars clasped to his eyes and woollen hat pulled down low, in good vantage points at the various club grounds. They were also treated to regular history lessons, especially if it involved a Cavanagh.

He did not seek the adrenaline rush of being proved right but he also could not resist suggesting players were destined for higher glories. Famously, he wrote at length in 2006 about a young Green Island utility back called Ben Smith who was surely ready for test rugby. There was also a glint of mischievous satisfaction in his face when he produced a clipping from the early 1980s about a youngster at a Dunedin squash tournament called Devoy whom the reporter tipped for greatness.

Athletics was Ali's first love, and he would devote a huge amount of time and energy to that and the likes of swimming and rowing, as well as champion a range of smaller sports. Bowls would later become a huge focus, and that sport - perhaps above all others in Otago - owes the man a significant debt for the care and craft he provided to its coverage.

So, too, does the masters sport movement have Ali to thank for much of its profile in Otago, and it was a lovely touch when he had the honour of lighting the flame at the New Zealand Masters Games in Dunedin in 2012.

Ali made his name and reputation in Otago, but there was also huge respect for him on the national scene. He won the overall New Zealand sports journalist of the year award in the 1980s, and he was a six-time winner of the New Zealand bowls writer of the year award.

He received less public recognition for his coaching ability, but those with even a skerrick of knowledge of the athletics scene from the 1960s onwards have no doubt Ali's contribution was immense.

A great believer in the Lydiard method, he led scores of runners on long endurance runs around Otago. He coached Olympians Euan Robertson and John Campbell, was the middle-distance coach of the New Zealand team at the Pan Pacific Games in 1977, and guided international athletes Robbie Johnston and Blair Martin and New Zealand cross-country champion Chip Dunckley. Beyond that, he provided advice and encouragement to a stream of Otago athletes, to the point he was described as the ''pied piper'' of that community.

Obviously, it was Tayler's 10,000m gold medal in 1974 that was Ali's lasting legacy as an athletics coach.

As a disciple of Lydiard, the ever-humble Ali was happy to defer to the master, but it was Ali who wrote and delivered the training programmes that prepared Tayler for his golden race.

Tayler, in his book, recalled linking with Ali in 1972.

His new coach ''took me aside and pointed out where he thought I was going wrong, both in training and my approach. His criticism made good sense.

''I agreed to work with him and, indirectly by letter, the doyen of coaches, Lydiard himself. Alistair revised my schedules that night in an effort to produce a good qualifying time at the Olympic trials, a must for me to make the team. The new schedules helped magnificently and, I'm sure, secured my place.''

After Tayler soared to gold in the 10,000m two years later, the McMurran training group in Dunedin swelled to about 40 athletes.

All those efforts - the reporting, the coaching, the guidance - were rewarded one big night in 2008, when Ali followed in the footsteps of Otago greats Lois Muir, Duncan Laing and Iain Gallaway and received the services to sport award at the Otago Sports Awards.

All his colleagues were in on the surprise, and we sat and watched as Ali's eyes got wider and wider during the citation as it dawned on him he was to be the recipient.

We were nervous about his speech of acceptance - would the shock strike him dumb, or would the microphone pick up that quiet voice? - but we need not have been. Ali spoke from the heart about his love of sport, and the hugely positive impact sport can have on young people. It is a beautiful memory for those who were present.

The setting was very familiar to Ali, who had served on the judging panel of the Otago Sports Awards since their inception in 1990. He had also been a selector for the inaugural intake into the Otago Rugby Hall of Fame.

Alistair David McMurran was born in Lyttelton on June 10, 1937, the youngest of William and Elsie McMurran's three children, and the son and grandson of marine engineers. His father died of an asthma attack when Ali was just 8.

Ali was initially educated at Tainui School before enrolling at Mornington School when the family moved, in about 1944, to 119 Kenmure Rd, where Ali would live for the next 73 years.

He attended Otago Boys' High School from 1951 to 1955, and excelled in sport. He became a regular member of the First XI in his second year, and won the school's senior cross-country in 1955, no mean feat when you consider he beat John Davies, who went on to win Olympic bronze in the 1500m.

After school, he was a handy top-order batsman and crack slip fielder for High School Old Boys. In athletics, he was a long-time member of the Mornington Harrier Club before it amalgamated to become Hill City, where he became a life member. He won the Ness Cup mile and Port Chalmers to Dunedin road race, and he even covered a Dunedin marathon in the 1980s immediately after running the course himself.

Ali's first job was as a station master. He trained as a teacher, and was also a long-serving bible class teacher and member of the Dunedin Theosophical Society, but he found his calling in journalism after, in 1971, serving as a joint publicity officer for the Otago Athletics Centre with Lin Rayner and Andy Curtis.

He loved to surf and ski, and while he escaped serious injury in those two pursuits, he broke his neck as a young man one summer working at a wool store, when a bale fell on him.

Like any good reporter, Ali was curious about the world around him, and it's fair to say he took that curiosity to all parts of the world.

His first major overseas trip was to Bhutan in 1985. By 2014, he had been to no fewer than 200 countries, many with great friend and travelling companion David Horne, earning him a gold award from the Travellers' Century Club, an international organisation of travellers.

He saw the best and the worst of the world, and retained vivid memories of war-torn areas like Kosovo, Lebanon and Rwanda. He got into North Korea - smartly, and not inaccurately, listing his occupation as ''sports coach'' - and spent five days under house arrest in Eritrea in 2007 when he was tried by a military judge for filling out a form incorrectly.

The final word on a man of rare warmth and humility must go to the late Brent Edwards, Ali's long-serving colleague in the ODT sports department, who wrote this of Ali in 2008:

''He has been a doer, not a talker. He has spent his working life writing about the little people and the legends of Otago sport. I'm sure it's never even crossed his mind that, in doing so, he has become something of a legend himself.''

Ali is survived by his brother, Ron, and sister, Betty.

- By Hayden Meikle

Tributes to Alistair (Ali) McMurran

Dick Tayler
1974 Commonwealth Games gold medallist

''I got to know Ali when I moved

to Dunedin in the late 1960s. He

was training a lot of athletes back then and we were both Arthur Lydiard disciples.

''He was a great guy and, as far as athletes were concerned, he would help anyone and not just the good athletes. His passion was infectious and something which I valued enormously.

''Every year Ali would send my mother a lovely Christmas card. He had got to know her when he stayed on the farm. And that is just how he was - always thinking of others. He was a caring man who had a wonderful sense of humour and a mischievous smile.

''Lydiard got a lot of the credit when

I won gold in 1974 but Ali believed in my ability. He was a great motivator and really kept me going. He was a special man and I cannot believe he is gone.''

 

Ken Walker
Lawn bowler

''The lawn bowls community in Otago and throughout New Zealand mourns the recent passing of Alistair McMurran.

''Ali was a journalist of rare skill. His commitment and dedication certainly raised the profile of bowls. His human interest articles were legendary and he was without peer when reporting on Dunedin national bowls championships.

''He was an unassuming man with an extremely quiet demeanour. But in many ways he was really more of a legend than many of the sporting subjects that he wrote about.

''It was most fitting that he died doing something he loved and he will be sorely missed by all his many bowling friends.''

 

Dave Campbell
Former Rugby News editor

''He had a penchant for bowls and was more Irish Rovers in appearance, but Alistair McMurran was my punk-rock hero of the journalism world.

''Catching him for a cleansing ale at the Speight's factory the night before a test in Dunedin was as obligatory as it was immensely satisfying, and a sure sign that all was well in the world. And that infectious grin . . . talk about one of a kind.

''The punk rock reference comes down to the fact that Ali did things his own way.

''He didn't need to scream from the rooftops that he was the best-travelled person you'll ever meet. Or that he'd been instrumental in a famous Commonwealth Games gold medal win before joining the team at the ODT.

''He'd deflect attention masterfully and find a way to point out something nice about you, which can't have always been easy when it came to some of his more cantankerous colleagues.

''The thing that makes me smile most about Ali, though, is the thought that he is the only person who will never know how many people he helped or had a profound effect on throughout his well-lived life.

''That's pretty punk rock in my book.''

 

Raylene Bates
Athletics coach

''I have had the pleasure of knowing Ali for about 35 years. From those early days I don't think he aged at all - he just looked and spoke the same.

''The quiet whisperer with a wealth of knowledge. He knew all the stats - knew what others around the country and world were doing, and would always present a case of positivity.

''His passion for athletics was the sport's privilege. As a former athlete and coach, he knew it inside out.

''The one funny thing about Ali, however, was every time he interviewed you he would ask your age or say ... you are still 21? He knew full well that in fact you were 30 at the time.

''Ali, we will miss your smile, your knowledge and, more importantly, your ''oh, oh, oh, that was a superb performance.''.

 

Des Smith
Otago Rugby Football Union president

''I first met Alistair when I was coaching the First XV at Otago Boys' High School in the early 70s.

''Alistair ... was an absolute pleasure to work with, a real gentleman in the true sense of the word. He would never intrude or overstep the mark and was always respectful of his role. I thoroughly enjoyed being in his company.

''His love for sport extended into many areas, including athletics and bowls, and his articles were always well worth reading as he had a passion for whatever sport he wrote about.

''He was a great supporter of secondary school athletics and made a significant impact in assisting with the increase in participation numbers, through his positive writing and reporting.

''Thank you Alistair. You have made an outstanding contribution to sport in Otago and we salute you.''

 

Tony O'Brien
Runner

''I first met Alistair 44 years ago when he was an athletics coach for the Mornington Harrier Club. Known to many of us as 'McMurran', he was an inspirational guide.

''He was, though, not beyond getting us lost. For McMurran, you were never lost, you just didn't know how long it would take to get home. Once, when running over the Burns track, he had a group of us running this way and that until we eventually stumbled on the path out of the bush. We reckoned we'd covered 25 miles that day, but McMurran was unfazed.

''It's a privilege to know even one inspirational figure in your life and, for me, McMurran was definitely one of those.

''If there's a runners' heaven, that's where McMurran will be. I just hope they send someone with him when he sets out on a long run.'' 

Tributes compiled by Adrian Seconi

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