When Harold Nelson watched Dick Tayler’s dramatic 10,000 metres win on the opening day of the 1974 Christchurch Commonwealth Games, he couldn’t help but think back to his own great Games moment.
It was 1950, when the Empire Games were held in Auckland, 12 years after the previous Games, in Sydney. Like Tayler, Nelson was in action on the opening day, and his event, the six miles, was the imperial equivalent of the race Tayler was to win so spectacularly 24 years later.
Nelson’s ruthlessly efficient gold-medal performance on the grass track at Eden Park set the scene for a great Empire Games and fired the locals with an enthusiasm that endured for the whole festival.
No wonder then that Nelson’s mind drifted back through the years as he watched Tayler thrust his arms in the air in triumph in Christchurch.
As Tayler had, Nelson went through some low athletics moments. He was born in 1923 and lost some of his best running years to World War II.
He was the New Zealand team captain and flagbearer at the 1948 London Olympics, but his international experience, plus the heat and the cinder track (new to New Zealanders), put him at a disadvantage and he failed to qualify in either the 5000m or 10,000m. He was sixth in his heat of the 5000m and did not finish the 10,000m. But it was hardly a fair test.
The tiny New Zealand team had to endure a long boat trip to Britain, during which they lost any form or fitness they might have had. And medicine and science were really rather rudimentary in 1948. Nelson told how he deliberately drank no liquids all day before his six-mile race, because that was accepted wisdom at the time. Later that turned right around and the importance of being hydrated became known.
After London, many felt Nelson’s time had passed. After all, he’d been performing at the top level since Ces Matthews’ retirement in 1939. By 1950 he was married with a child and was regarded as one of the veterans of New Zealand athletics. However, he had won the New Zealand championships three-mile/six-mile double in 1948 and was clearly a class runner.
“Though I didn’t know it when I was lining up, I was lucky to even make the team in 1950,” he said many years later. “After I’d won, one of the selectors told me the selection panel had been split two to one against picking me. It never occurred to me I wouldn’t be chosen. All my training had been geared to peaking for the Games.
“The trouble was that the national championships in Napier that year doubled as trials and I finished second in the six miles and fourth in the three miles, so in some people’s minds my form might have looked shaky. But I’d just been to a coaching course and was so sore I couldn’t even walk down the stairs frontwards.
“I suppose to athletics followers I was a bit long in the tooth. In those days, once you got married they wrote you off. Joyce and I were going to get married in 1947, but we ended up putting off our wedding until after the time trials for the 1948 Olympic team. You couldn’t risk being written off for being married. I think they felt once you got married, you couldn’t be serious about athletics.”
Nelson said that at the start of the six miles in Auckland he was hoping for a medal at least.
“I was wary of Noel Taylor, who had beaten me in the nationals just before. Noel was an erratic runner, but had a lot of ability. The other big threats, I felt, were the Australians, Davey and Merrett. I never paid much attention to the Scot, Forbes, who eventually finished second.”
Compared to the cocooned existence of today’s athletes, Nelson had rather a busy opening to the 1950 Games.
“I didn’t want to march in the opening ceremony, but was told I had to, though I was allowed to fall out after the march past. So at least I didn’t have to stand around for hours in the sun. I went off to rest quietly under a tree and got a startling awakening when they had a 21-gun salute. The guns were right beside my tree!”
Nelson said that during the six-mile race, his only moment of concern was in the fifth to last lap, when the two Australians moved to the front.
“I was running fairly comfortably, but when they took the lead, I assumed they were going to step up the pace and I didn’t think I’d handle that very well.
“It turned out they had actually gone to the lead so they could slow down the pace. When I realised that, I moved to the front again and made sure the pace was maintained.
“With a lap to go, I was confident I would win. I’d trained myself to run the last lap in under 60 seconds and felt that would be too quick for the rest. What helped even more was the incredible lift I got from the crowd.
“Having a whole stadium cheering wildly for you is an inspiring feeling. I felt like I was floating and I eventually won by about 25 yards. When I crossed the line, I was relieved it was all over. The elation set in later.”
Sir Arthur Porritt presented Nelson with his medal (as he did to so many New Zealand Games winners over the years). The New Zealanders had got to know him in London two years earlier and had actually babysat his children there. Porritt was one of the key officials who organised the 1948 London Olympics.
“It was nice knowing I’d justified my selection and proved that I had the ability to run at that level, despite what happened at the Olympics.”
Nelson’s winning time was 30min 29.6s and he beat silver medallist Forbes by just over two seconds. Noel Taylor was third.
In remarkable scheduling, the three miles was run the next day.
“I finished second to Len Eyre, the Englishman. He was a miler and had more basic speed and deserved to win. It was a little hard getting myself up for the three miles after winning the six. I really felt I’d done my job when I won that gold medal.”
Eyre won in 14min 23.6s. Nelson was second in 14min 28.8s, just ahead of another Englishman, Anthony Chivers.
Nelson and his wife, Joyce settled in Nelson in 1951, the year he won his second national cross-country crown. It was his final New Zealand title.
The Nelsons raised two boys and two girls, but one of the boys, Grant, was tragically killed in a climbing accident. Nelson remained close to athletics, coaching runners and officiating in athletics in Nelson for many decades. Until a stroke late in his life, he was always extremely fit and used to jog regularly. He attended the 1990 Auckland commonwealth Games as a track officials.
In 2009 Nelson was recognised as New Zealand’s oldest living Olympian. He died at Richmond in 2011, aged 88. He had been awarded an MBE in 1986.