Full of running, there is plenty of life left in the Olympic spirit

Joss Miller, for one, cannot wait for the Paris Olympic Games to start.

The summer Olympic Games always involves anticipation and excitement.

Fittingly, France is host this year. French educationalist and historian Pierre de Coubertin is regarded as "Father of the Modern Olympic games" with these commencing in Greece in 1896. The original Olympic Games dates back to Athens, Greece in 776BC.

De Coubertin saw sport as a fundamentally healthy and valuable activity for society with the Olympics to be amateur in nature, bringing together the best athletes in the world irrespective of race, religion or ideology. It was also his view that "the important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, the important thing in life is not to triumph but to struggle, the essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well".

Politics have on rare occasions impacted on the Olympics but apart from the war years of 1916, 1940 and 1944 they have continued every four years since 1896 at venues around the world. Owing to Covid the recent Tokyo Olympics were postponed for one year.

Success in this arena has undoubtedly been a source of national pride and inspiration. My sense of this first occurred at a very young age in 1960, during the Rome Olympics when New Zealand athletes Peter Snell (800m) and Murray Halberg (5000m) won gold medals in quick succession on a remarkable day, when black singlets and silver ferns graced the medals podium. There was unabounded national pride in their success.

Peter Snell was an immensely talented athlete. In 1964 at the Tokyo Olympics he won gold medals in both the 800 and 1500m, dominating each event with comparative ease. He was by far the world’s greatest middle distance runner of his era. He was also the holder of a number of world records. Even now his world record 800m time of 1 minute 44.3 seconds, set on a grass track at Lancaster Park, Christchurch in February, 1962 is still our national record. It also remains the world record time on this type of surface.

He was in every sense an amateur athlete, fitting training around a fulltime job. In 1965 at the age of 26 Snell retired from athletics. A few years later he travelled to the US to study physiology, with this leading to a fulfilling academic career in Dallas, Texas. Deservedly, in 2000 he was voted New Zealand athlete of the 20th century.

A New Zealander figured in the 1924 Paris Olympics, this being highlighted in the movie Chariots of Fire. Rhodes Scholar Arthur Porritt came third in the 100m with the winner being England’s Harold Abrahams. Porritt for personal reasons didn’t want to be identified in the movie and was referred to by the fictional name of "Tom Watson".

Following athletics, he qualified in England as a surgeon and went on to become the first New Zealand-born Governor-General in 1967.

Harold Abrahams rattled the establishment in having a professional coach by the name of Sam Mussabini. This was seen as contrary to the ethos of amateurism. Abrahams, following his retirement from athletics, went on to have a distinguished career as a lawyer, radio broadcaster and sports administrator.

When New Zealand Rhodes Scholar Jack Lovelock won an Olympic gold medal in the 1500m at Berlin in 1936, Abrahams was the commentator. As Lovelock burst ahead of the field with about 200m to run, Abrahams lost some objectivity and began to passionately cheer on Lovelock, in what became a memorable sporting broadcast.

They were very good friends so this reaction was entirely understandable.

Lovelock died in a New York subway accident in 1949.

Unlike in 1924, at the Paris Olympics this year, prize money is to be awarded for athletes who win a gold medal in the 48 athletic events, with this likely to be extended further at the next Olympic Games.

New Zealand has produced many fine athletes over the years. Our national emblem, the silver fern, remains as powerful as ever. Those who stand on the Olympic medals podium have made huge sacrifices to achieve that.

But the uplifting words of de Coubertin need to always be borne in mind, that there are only so many winners. Taking part is just as, or even more important.

Amid a world where there is often turmoil and division, the Olympic spirit remains strong and is a beacon of light.

 - Joss Miller is a retired lawyer and former competitive runner.