Mike O'Rourke carried on a fine tradition of New Zealand javelin throwers that began with Stan Lay in the 1920s and continued with Gavin Lovegrove and Kirsten Hellier in the 1990s, and then Stuart Farquhar.
O’Rourke, born in Croydon, New South Wales, in 1955, was eight times the national javelin champion and competed in three Commonwealth Games and one Olympics.
He was brought up in Taradale, Hawke’s Bay, and did not start throwing the javelin seriously until he had left Colenso High School, in Napier.
By the late 1970s, O’Rourke, then living in Auckland, was travelling the European Grand Prix circuit, a contemporary of John Walker, Rod Dixon and Dick Quax. He became particularly close to Walker.
The North Shore athlete’s first Commonwealth Games was at Edmonton in 1978, when he threw 83.18m to secure the silver medal behind Canadian Phil Oslen (84.0m). They were far ahead of the rest of the competition.
O’Rourke continued to compete well and gain international experience and was chosen for the 1980 Moscow Olympics. He never got to compete, however, when New Zealand largely boycotted those Games as the behest of American President Jimmy Carter (who was protesting the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan).
By 1982, O’Rourke was the top-ranked javelin thrower in the Commonwealth and was determined to turn his Edmonton silver into a gold at the Brisbane Commonwealth Games.
He did not compete until the last day. Olsen was reckoned to be the main threat to O’Rourke, but it was another Canadian, Laslo Babits, who grabbed the early lead with 84.88m. It was a distance O’Rourke had bettered many times and was a personal best for Babits by a long way.
In the fourth of his six throws, O’Rourke managed 84.66m, his best of the day, but still not good enough.
Next time, O’Rourke really went after the big one and sent the javelin soaring way into the distance, even over the tape signalling the 89-metre barrier. O’Rourke knew the gold was his and what’s more, he had set a Games record of 89.48m.
On paper, O’Rourke entered the 1983 world championships in Helsinki – the first world championships – as a realistic medal chance. His personal best of 90.58m ranked him ninth going into the event, but he was capable of a much better placing than that.
Instead he had a horror time of it in qualifying, throwing 75.32m, followed by two fouls.
The event was won by East German Detlef Michel with 89.48m and even 85.6m would have won a medal. Instead O’Rourke was left in 15th place out of 18 entrants.
Things did not improve at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, where, his build-up was beset by back problems, He had three consecutive fouls and did not even register a distance in qualifying. He said later he had not enjoyed the 8.30am start, which meant he was out of bed at 4am. “It was a bit disappointing, knowing it was within my capability, but luck plays a huge part in sport. I just didn’t connect on the day,” he said.
After that O’Rourke drifted into retirement, but there was to be one asterisk in his career. He decided to make a comeback of sorts because the 1990 Commonwealth Games were in Auckland. Though he was training only three times a week, he threw 79m and finished fifth, in an event dominated by Englishmen Steve Backley and Mick Hill, with New Zealander Gavin Lovegrove third. “I was happy with that. I really just wanted to be part of the Games,” he said.
In the late 1990s O’Rourke, a builder, returned to Hawke’s Bay, where he established himself in business.