In the early 2000s a national newspaper ran a readersâ poll seeking the most memorable television moment in New Zealand sports history. Dick Taylerâs 10,000m victory at the 1974 Christchurch Commonwealth Games was an overwhelming winner.
That moment had everything. It was unexpected - the three Englishmen, including world record-holder David Bedford, and the three Kenyans were the favourites. It was on a big stage - the first day of athletics at the Christchurch Commonwealth Games was a truly international occasion. It was televised live and, a bonus, it was one of the first coloured transmissions in New Zealand.
Best of all, the winner was so genuinely shocked and delighted with what heâd done that onlookers, those at the Queen Elizabeth II stadium and those watching television, could not help but be delighted.
Tayler, a 25-year-old athlete who had laboured in the long shadows of Dick Quax, Rod Dixon and the emerging John Walker, simply could not contain his excitement. After he crossed the finish line, he thrust his arms in the air and leapt with delight. Then he collapsed on his back on the track and rolled over with excitement, before getting to his feet and showing the world the biggest smile imaginable.
That gold medal run, and the joyous scenes afterwards, launched a remarkable Commonwealth Games, and turned Tayler into an overnight celebrity. On the strength of that one effort, he was voted into the Sports Hall of Fame in 1990, was the subject of a This Is Your Life programme and became a household name.
Memories of that triumph remained vivid.
What made the story even more remarkable was that Tayler had been found wanting at previous Games.
He was born in 1948 in Timaru, which had produced champion athletes like Jack Lovelock and Pat Boot. Tayler seemed sure to follow their line, even recording a world record mile run for a 15-year-old.
But though he trained prodigiously, he was not able to turn his talent into international success. He ran at the 1970 Edinburgh Commonwealth Games and, though doing near his best in the 5000m, could finish just 10th, the same position he earned in the 1500m final.
At the Munich Olympics in 1972, he was not very far off his 5000m best, yet was swallowed up by the mass of world-class talent and failed to get past his heat.
Sure, there had been moments of athletics happiness. He was a member of a New Zealand 4 x mile relay team which set a world record, and heâd turned in some fine cross-country performances. In addition, a marathon time of 2h 16min pointed to future greatness at that distance.
But really he had nothing to show for the years of sweat and the hopes. No medals, no international successes.
He kept training, though, believing that one day he could achieve something great.
That day came on January 25, 1974.
Who would have believed, as they watched Tayler in his moment of triumph, that within a few months he would be confined to a hospital bed and would never run competitively again?
Tayler eventually settled in Christchurch, where for years he worked for DB, as an accounts manager for sports clubs. Previously heâd been marketing manager for the New Zealand Harness Racing Conference. He has become a most humorous and in-demand public speaker.
Decades after his moment of glory, he said he was still often asked about that 10,000m race. âI can remember it like it was yesterday,â he said.
âI donât think the part Arthur Lydiard played in that race has ever really been recognised. He planned the whole race for me, told me who would do what and when, and he was exactly right. And Arthur was a wonderful motivator. He made me believe in myself, which is half the battle.â
About two weeks before the race, Tayler ran a personal best 5000m in training, an indication that things were coming together well. In fact, armed with the knowledge that he had run into superlative form, it was difficult for Tayler to remain low-key, to be patient. Thatâs where Lydiardâs experience was invaluable.
âI knew I was in the best form of my life. In the back of my mind, I was hoping for a medal. Really, though, the goal was to run well and let the rest take care of itself. I never dreamed Iâd go out and win it...I never envisaged that.
âWhen I was young I dreamed of being an All Black, but I soon realised that wasnât likely, and then my thoughts turned to the Olympics. I wondered what it would be like to compete in an Olympics.
âBy the time I got to Christchurch Iâd been running quite a while, but I still looked up to athletes like David Bedford and David Black, the two big English names in the race. I was just hoping to beat my personal best of 28min 29s.â
It was an unusual race, perhaps unique among 10,000m races at this level. Almost from the start Tayler was dropped off the leading bunch. But instead of falling ever further behind, he drifted back until the gap was about 50 or 60 metres, and then maintained that distance.
âArthur had told me Bedford would try to lead and that the Kenyans would pressure him. He told me to keep clear because thereâd be some niggling. He was right. But I never expected theyâd run so fast and before long a big gap had opened up.
âPeople thought Iâd lost contact, but I knew I was running okay, and that the pace was right for me. I couldnât believe the leaders would keep up that pace. If they had, theyâd have smashed the world record.
âSo I hung on, focusing on them. It was a very rough race, and Bedford obviously got upset at the pushing and jostling. But I was well clear of all that.â
Then gradually Tayler began to gain on the leaders. When the crowd noticed that the figure in black was gaining inexorably, they began to cheer and chant. âThe crowd picked me up and carried me along.
The others dropped off and I found myself in a tight leading bunch.
âThe best feeling was getting up to the leaders and then having to slow down to fit into their rhythm.â
Entering the last lap only Black and Tayler were left.
âThe crowd had been chanting âBlack, black, blackâ. It could have been confusing. One runner was called black, another was black and I was wearing black. But I knew who they meant and it put wings on my feet.â
It came down to a last-lap sprint, and athletics buffs nodded excitedly to each other. Tayler had run a sub-four minute mile, Black was strictly a distance man. If Tayler had strength in his legs he would surely win.
With 250 metres to go, Tayler, in the best traditions of Lovelock and Snell, dipped his head and took off. He surged into the lead and increased the margin with every step.
âBlack and I talked about the race that night and he said he knew Iâd win it going into the last lap. It never felt like that to me. It was a very long home straight. There was a tremendous amount of noise from the crowd. It was blood-tingling stuff.â
Tayler did the sort of victory lap that is seldom seen. âIt was like I was in a time warp. People kept running on to the track. Schoolmates, flatmates, workmates - it was like my whole life was being relived on that victory lap. The feeling was unbelievable.â
These days Tayler looks back on his reaction after going through the finish with a touch of embarrassment. âIt was an unreal feeling. If Iâd felt I was going to win, maybe my reaction would have been different. Iâve probably seen those closing scenes on TV 20 times. I try to disappear from the room when they come on. It wasnât really me out there on the track. I was just