Don Oliver and Les Mills were friends, training companions and sports rivals for years. Later they became business rivals, but their friendship remained as strong as ever.
Mills, who won several Commonwealth Games shot and discus gold medals, was the founder of the immensely successful Les Mills World of Fitness gyms.
Oliver, a Commonwealth Games gold and silver medallist heavyweight weightlifter, at one point owned six gyms in Auckland and started his own brand of fitness equipment.
But theirs was the friendship of a lifetime.
“Les and I trained together for about eight years and we helped each other a lot,” said Oliver not long before his death in 1996. “He was a good weightlifter, and in fact was selected as a weightlifter for the 1966 Commonwealth Games. I did some shot putting too, so we were also sports rivals.
“Our friendship carried on from those days, and we know we’d help each other at the drop of a hat.”
It would be hard to imagine Oliver, a committed Christian, falling out with anyone. He was born in Auckland in 1937 and by the 1960s had developed into the big man, literally, of New Zealand sport, our one world-class weightlifter - and in the glamour heavyweight division at that.
He competed at three Olympics from 1960-68, and two Commonwealth Games. Except for the Eastern Bloc lifters, by then enjoying the benefits of those new fangled steroids, he was as good as virtually anyone in the world.
His best clean and jerk lift was 205kg, which was within 40 lb of the world record. That mark lasted more than 30 years, by which time it was 150 lb adrift of the world’s best.
Whenever Oliver competed, he could be sure to have a huge support crew out in the audience. He was by popular demand named captain of both the 1966 and 1968 Games teams.
It was entirely appropriate that Oliver was the one weightlifter named as an inaugural inductee into the New Zealand Sports Hall of Fame in 1990.
From 1959, he won the national heavyweight title 10 years in succession and in that time he became the public face of the sport.
Just before his arrival on the scene, Harold Cleghorn (heavyweight) and Tony George (light-heavy) were huge figures who both influenced the young Oliver. But neither had the public profile the genial Oliver enjoyed. George did maintain a vital involvement in weightlifting though, as Oliver’s coach.
Oliver was a mere novice when he went to Rome for the 1960 Olympics. He came away with a 12th placing, and a feeling of honour that the likes of Arthur Lydiard, Peter Snell and Murray Halberg treated him as an equal.
In Perth at the 1962 Empire Games, he waged a titanic battle with the Australian, Arthur Shannos, and was deprived of the heavyweight gold medal only because he had the heavier bodyweight, after both lifters had totalled 1025 lb (465kg).
“I never had any regrets about Perth,” he said. “After all, I did succeed with all nine of my lifts and was beaten by a man who rose to the occasion and produced a final lift which we never expected.
“Judging by the way Shannos had been struggling throughout the competition, we felt if I got my final lift, I’d win the gold. But he produced the big one, and good on him.”
Their rivalry was renewed in Jamaica, in 1966. In between, Oliver had performed superbly at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, when he finished ninth, and at the 1965 world champs, in Iran of all places, when he was fifth.
At Tokyo, he was permitted to lift only in the second category, for the lesser-performed lifters, and won it. How much better he’d have gone if competing with the big guns is a matter of speculation, but Oliver said it was disappointing not to be in the top company.
Before Kingston, he wasn’t even thinking of a gold medal. “I was more worried about getting there at all. I had badly injured a knee and couldn’t do a deep knee bend, even without weights.
“In desperation I began running in the surf, and that’s what finally helped my knee mend. I almost wept with joy when I went back to the gym and found I could lift again.
“The heavyweight competition in Kingston was unique because it wasn’t the last on the lifting schedule. The local hero was a chap named Martin, a world champion in his division, so they put his class last, even though he was far lighter.
“We heavyweights lifted in late afternoon. Obviously I regarded Shannos as a formidable competitor, but I knew that if I lifted up to my best, I’d be hard to beat.
“As in Perth, I got all nine of my lifts. I knew I had the gold won before my last lift because Arthur had completed his three. For the last one, I asked for 200kg, which would give me the Commonwealth record. It turned out that when they put the 200kg on the bar, that was all the weights they had. Heaven knows what would have happened if the competition had been still alive and we’d required more weights.
“Winning the gold was a truly wonderful feeling. You feel relieved because the pressure falls from your shoulders, and you feel happy for all your supporters, and then you feel immense satisfaction.
“There was a great atmosphere that day. It seemed like most of the New Zealand team turned up to cheer me on.”
Oliver continued until 1968 when he finished eighth at the Olympics. “I was affected by the altitude. I had been lifting records in training, but when I got to Mexico City, I found it hard to cope with the altitude. For my last lift, I asked for 200kg, well down on my best. I got it and I can tell you, there wasn’t another gram in the bank that day. That was the outer edge of my limit.”
Oliver retired then to concentrate on his business career.
“It was either that or mortgage my future. As it was, it was always frustrating building up for a big overseas competition, getting into top shape, and then having to virtually give away lifting for a year on your return to try to catch up financially.”
Oliver, who was a butcher by profession, stayed involved in weightlifting for several years, and was head coach of the successful 1974 weightlifting contingent at the Commonwealth Games.
He was happily married to Maureen and they had three adult children when he received shocking news in late 1995 that he was dying of cancer. He died in February 1996, aged just 59.
Oliver received the Lonsdale Cup in 1965 and in 1981 was awarded an OBE.