There are many stories of New Zealanders who narrowly missed winning an Olympic medal. Perhaps none were unluckier than Christchurch shot put and discus expert Val Young, who could easily have won not one but three Olympic medals.
For a decade from the late 1950s, Young, or Val Sloper as she was before her marriage in early 1961, was clearly the best female thrower in the Commonwealth. She won a shot put gold and discus bronze at Cardiff in 1958, and in both Perth (1962) and Kingston (1966) scooped the Commonwealth Games shot put-discus double.
At Olympic level, though, she had to face the formidable Eastern Europeans.
At Melbourne in 1956, when she was just a raw 19-year-old, Young was fifth in the shot put behind three Soviet Union throwers and a German. Her chief memories of those Olympics include the political tension because the Soviets had just over-run Hungary, of being overwhelmed by the huge occasion, and of “our terrible, ill-fitting black tracksuits”.
Four years later at Rome, competing the same day Peter Snell and Murray Halberg won their gold medals, her shot put effort of 16.39m was a mere three centimetres behind bronze medallist Earlene Brown of the US. She was set for the bronze until the American pipped her with her last throw. Way out ahead though were Tamara Press of the Soviet Union and East German Johanna Luttge.
At Tokyo in 1964, Young was again fourth. This time her 17.26m effort was beaten by Press and Galina Zybina of the Soviet Union and East German Renate Garisch-Culmberger.
It has been said since that if there’d been stringent drug-testing back then, Young would certainly have won Olympic medals, perhaps even golds. There was tremendous suspicion about the East Europeans. In addition, there was another problem, as David Wallechinsky hinted at in his authoritative The Complete Book of the Olympics: “Between them, Tamara Press and her younger sister Irina set 26 world records and won five Olympic gold medals. Unfortunately, when sex tests were instituted at international competitions, the careers of both Press sisters came to a sudden halt.”
Young, a down-to-earth, under-stated personality, remained philosophical about her Olympic fate. “I suppose it could have worked out differently,” she said, “but I never thought about it at the time. You knew the competition you were up against, and you tried to beat them. They were hefty athletes, and I looked fairly slim beside them.
“I didn’t really know anything about steroids back then, and sex-testing was unheard of, though some of my competitors did have unusually deep voices!”
Noted British coach Geoffrey Dyson said later while visiting New Zealand that it was a pity Young hadn’t won at the Olympics because it would have been a victory for women.
Regardless of her close encounters of the Olympic kind, Young still compiled an amazing record for both excellence and durability, and was the logical successor to Yvette Williams at the top of New Zealand women’s athletics. She was a team-mate of Peter Snell, Murray Halberg and company and at national and Commonwealth level, was just as dominant as them.
She was born in Ashburton in 1937 and from 1956-82 won a record 37 national titles, and 57 medals in all. Her New Zealand discus record stood for three decades and her shot put record of 17.26m has not really been challenged in the 32 years since it was set. Little wonder, then, that Young named among the inaugural inductees into the Sports Hall of Fame in 1990.
Young remained involved in athletics when her best days as a competitor were behind her. She was an official with the 1976 Olympic team, and continued to compete successfully at various levels for many more years. She won a succession of world veterans throwing titles, and even into the late 1990s was still turning out in the Smokefree international series when it stopped in Christchurch.
When she was in her athletics prime, it was not fashionable for women to stay in top sport long, and initially Young fitted that mould, retiring after the 1964 Olympics, and concentrating on basketball, at which she assisted Canterbury to a national title and later represented the South Island.
“Then my husband Ross got a trip to Kingston as an official. I decided to try to make the team and was picked for the shot put and discus. When I went I thought I might struggle more, but I still gave myself a show.
“I was very nervous before the shot competition as my main rival, Mary Peters [who later won an Olympic pentathlon gold medal] of Northern Ireland, had beaten me by about four feet in a warm-up meet.
“I thought I was in trouble, but I came right on the day. It was the same day Roy Williams won his decathlon gold, so it’s full of good memories.”
On her return, Young was awarded the Lonsdale Cup, for the best performance in an Olympic or Commonwealth Games sport. She was the first woman to be so honoured.
After her golden double at Kingston, Young retired (again), this time to start a family. By the time the 1974 Commonwealth Games rolled around, she was 36 and had three daughters.
“I did some soul-searching before the 1974 Games. I hadn’t competed since the kids were born, but the standards hadn’t risen and because the Games were in my home town, I decided to have a go. It was hard training with the kids, even though they were very well-behaved.
“Eventually I finished second, so I suppose that wasn’t too bad.”
Young had a couple of advantages as an athlete. Firstly she had talented Latvian Waldy Briedis as her coach from when she was 16. Briedis, who also coached Olympic 800m bronze medallist Marise Chamberlain, had a special ability to get the best out of his pupils. “One reason was that he made athletics fun,” said Young. “He encouraged us to do other events, and in fact I even won a couple of national pentathlon titles.”
Also Young was tall (5ft 11in) and naturally strong, and was blessed with a good temperament. “I can’t really say why I was ahead of the rest. I guess technique is very important, and that comes down to coaching. That was the key.”
In 1987 she was awarded an OBE.