New Zealand Olympic glory revisited in print

Mark Todd
Mark Todd
Sarah Ulmer
Sarah Ulmer
Jack Lovelock
Jack Lovelock
Barbara Kendall
Barbara Kendall
Peter Snell
Peter Snell

It is an Olympic year and all New Zealand eyes will be on Beijing in August as our latest crop of athletes strives for Games glory. Alistair McMurran revisits New Zealand's Olympic history through two recent book releases.

New Zealand's Olympic sports suffered a severe setback because of the Jimmy Carter-inspired boycott of the 1980 Games in Moscow.

Officials and athletes involved at the time remain bitter at the lost opportunities and the weak way the Government acquiesced to the United States's commands and put pressure on New Zealand sports bodies to stay away from Moscow.

Rowing, in particular, was a sport that lost its heart and enthusiasm because of the boycott and it took time for the sport to recover.

Rowing is one of New Zealand's most successful Olympic sports and had been on an Olympic high since winning a gold medal at Mexico City in 1968, gold and silver at Munich in 1972, and bronze at Montreal in 1976.

But the momentum slowed because of the boycott and the slow and painful task of rebuilding the sports resources started again in the 1980s.

Joseph Romanos, in his usual manner, has gone behind the rhetoric of the time and written a detailed account of the impact of the boycott on New Zealand's Olympic sports in his new book Our Olympic Century.

He quotes the comments of rowing stalwart Tay Wilson who was the chef de mission of the small Olympic team of four athletes - canoeists Ian Ferguson, Alan Thompson and Geoff Walker, and Brian Newth, who competed in the modern pentathlon.

In his post-Games report Wilson wrote:"I trust that we are now more conscious of the Olympic charter and its rules, particularly rule 24c that National Olympic Committees must be autonomous and resist all pressures whether political, religious or economic."

The comment from Alan Thompson was significant.

"We had no intention of pulling out. Our sport was run by by some self-employed, strong willed and bloody-minded people who weren't going to be pushed around.

"The heat really came on when we got home. I found that people I didn't even know hated my guts. I became pretty cynical about the whole thing,"

This strong talk is typical of the 263-page book by Romanos that investigates in detail New Zealand's Olympic history.

Romanos is also critical of Adolf Hitler and World War 2 for disrupting the Olympic movement and stopping the 1940 and 1944 Olympic Games.

"The 1940 Olympic Games were assigned to Tokyo and, after Japan invaded China, were reassigned to Helsinki.

When Soviet troops invaded Finland they were cancelled.

The 1944 Games were to be held in London, but were cancelled because of the war."

Otago distance runner Harold Nelson was deprived of the chance to compete at the 1944 Olympics when he would have been at his prime.

Romanos' book highlights how closely the Olympics have been tied up with politics.

He describes the massacre of Israeli athletes by Palestinian terrorists at Munich in 1972 as the "lowest moment in Olympic history.

"Politics and the Olympic Games have never been far apart. Because the influence of the Olympics is so far-reaching the event has always been a potential victim of politics."

There were no boycotts of the Berlin Olympics in 1936 but several countries considered it because of the increasing influence of the Nazis.

"There have been good-news political stories, such as the belated debuts of China and the Soviet Union, but most is in a negative way," Romanos wrote.

"After World War 2, Germany and Japan were not invited to the 1948 Olympics.

"The first boycott took place in 1956, when Egypt, Iraq and Lebanon withdrew in protest at the British, French and Israeli actions during the Suez crisis, and the Netherlands, Spain and Switzerland boycotted to protest the Soviet invasion of Hungary.

"By 1972, all sorts of groups could see the value of using the Olympics to make a statement. South Africa was still excluded and was joined on the sidelines by Rhodesia."

Ces Blazey, probably New Zealand's greatest sports administrator, was also caught up in Olympic boycotts.

In 1976 he held the dual roles of chairman of the New Zealand Rugby Football Union and chairman of the New Zealand Amateur Athletics Association.

The 1976 All Blacks tour of South Africa caused African nations to boycott the 1976 Olympics in Montreal.

The row meant that Blazey could not continue in the dual role and he resigned from his athletics position, despite being on the NZAAA management committee for 27 years and its chairman for 15 years.

New Zealand athletics was harmed by the loss of a high calibre administrator like Blazey.

Romanos has unearthed interesting copy that shows New Zealand Olympians have always had their free thinkers and people with strong opinions.

One of these was 18-year-old sprinter Norma Wilson, who competed at the 1928 Olympics at Amsterdam.

She was the first New Zealand female runner to compete at the Olympics and caused a stir at a parliamentary reception when the team returned to New Zealand by referring to leading officials as stuffed shirts and told them it was imperative to lay cinder tracks in the main centres.

She also told the parliamentary reception that "overseas all women run in shorts. This is something we must get here."

It was a move that changed the approach to women's sports and in a short time all the female runners were wearing shorts.

The other book on the Olympics is Paul Verdon's limited edition of 599 copies of Olympic Legends, The book of New Zealand's Olympic Medallists.

The book contains the original signatures of 97 of New Zealand's Olympic medallists.

The exceptions are cyclist Sarah Ulmer and rower Lindsay Wilson.

Verdon dealt with Ulmer's manager Roger Mortimer who said that the cyclist did not want to co-operate.

Verdon attempted to persuade Wilson to sign through other members of the 1972 rowing eight but he was not interested.

"I went to extreme lengths to get them to sign. It was a shame they didn't co-operate," Verdon said.

This book, like that by Romanos, adds to New Zealand's Olympic Games lore with new information.

Malcolm Champion, who won a gold medal in the Australasia relay team at Stockholm in 1912, was the custodian of the Tepid Baths in Auckland and occasionally swam home from work across the Waitemata Harbour to his home on the North Shore.

He was also a talented artist, who drew sketches of ships to decorate his office wall.

Darcy Hadfield, who won a bronze medal in the single sculls at the Antwerp Olympic Games in 1920, did not have an ideal preparation after spending two stints in hospital recovering from a shrapnel wound to the head from the Battle of Passchendaele.

In 1933 Teddy Morgan, who won a boxing gold medal at the 1928 Olympics at Amsterdam, married sprinter Norma Wilson.

The marriage was a turbulent one and ended in divorce five years later.

Sport was truly amateur when Otago's Yvette Williams won the long jump gold medal at Helsinki in 1952.

She had to make her own shorts and buy her own shirts.

She lifted concrete blocks and sandbags to build strength.

Olympic team mate Jean Stewart did all her training in the short-course Moray Pl pool in Dunedin when there were breaks in the public swimming sessions.

Trevor Manning, the goalkeeping hero of the gold medal-winning New Zealand hockey team at Montreal in 1976, had an operation on the knee broken in the final against Australia.

But he was not eligible for any medical insurance or Accident Compensation assistance for his 13 weeks off work.

Both books contain excellent statistics tables and photographs, one of the best being the 1928 Olympians wearing life jackets during a drill on their voyage to Europe.


The reads

Our Olympic Century, by Joseph Romanos (Trio Books, 2008, $59.99).

Olympic Legends: The book of New Zealand's Olympic Medallists, by Paul Verdon (Hill-Verdon Publishing; $495).


Romanos' rankings


1 Peter Snell (athletics)
2 Danyon Loader (swimming)
3 Jack Lovelock (athletics)
4 Murray Halberg (athletics)
5 John Walker (athletics)


Barbara Kendall (yachting)
Annelise Coberger (skiing)
Sarah Ulmer (cycling)
Yvette Williams (athletics)
Lorraine Moller (athletics)


Rowing eight (1972)
Men's hockey (1976)
Rowing coxed four (1968)
K4 1000 canoeing (1984)
K2 500 canoeing (1984, 1988, 1992)

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