Published Thursday 31 July 2014

In the end it came down to a race between two of the more physically imposing members of the New Zealand team – shot putter Valerie Adams and heavyweight weightlifter Stanislav Chalaev.

Both would have been worthy winners of New Zealand’s 600th Commonwealth Games medal.

Adams, of course, is arguably the finest sportsman or woman ever produced by New Zealand, with her magnificent record of two Olympic golds, four world titles (and a second place) and, including today, three Commonwealth Games golds (and a silver).

Her record stacks up against any New Zealand sports figure – whether their surname is Snell, McCaw, Meads, Rufer, Walker, Loader, Lovelock or Williams.

And Chalaev, a silver medallist at the 2010 Commonwealth Games, touched New Zealand hearts when he competed last time for his recently deceased mother. He held her photo at the victory ceremony and burst into tears when he thought of her.

The day began with some intrigue. New Zealand had won 31 medals in Glasgow, which meant 596 overall. Two wrestlers, Tayla Ford and Sam Belkin, chimed in with bronzes, and that took it to 598. Then gutsy weightlifter Tracey Lambrechs forced herself into a bronze medal position – 599.

As Adams and Chalaev, competing on opposite sides of Glasgow, vied for the magic 600, there was time to reflect on how it all began.

In 1930, Auckland six-mile athlete (there were imperial distances at the games until 1970) Billy Savidan won New Zealand’s first Empire Games (yes, they were Empire until 1970, too) medal on the opening day of the first games, in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada.

He did it the hard way. After marching in the opening ceremony on a sunny afternoon, he put on his running shoes and dominated the six-mile field. When the official counting the laps held up “1”, he built up a head of steam and finished with a sprint, more than 120 metres ahead of his closest opposition. The only problem was the lap official had inadvertently flicked over two number cards. There was actually still a lap to go.

Savidan, so confident and in control moments earlier, was urged back on to the track and told: “Run another lap.” He stumbled around, looking over his shoulder at the closing challengers.

He later described it as “a lap of torture”. Savidan duly crossed the finishing line – again – and collapsed into the arms of his team-mates. He was in a semi-conscious state and his team-mates walked him around the track for half an hour to help him regain his equilibrium.

New Zealand would have got to 600 earlier, but for the fact that the 1942 and 1946 games were never held because of World War II. Auckland stepped up and revived the festival in 1950. New Zealand also held what is commonly agreed was the most successful of all Commonwealth Games – Christchurch, 1974. However, Glasgow has had a good go at rivalling Christchurch, it must be said.

No 600 would also have come before now but for extraordinary bad luck. Someone stole 5000m athlete Rod Dixon’s shoes moments before the final at Edmonton in 1978. He was a racing certainty to win a medal. Sylvia Potts stumbled within a metre of the finishing line when leading the 1500m final at Edinburgh in 1970. Marise Chamberlain pulled a leg muscle when closing in on the 800m gold medal at Kingston in 1966. Walker Craig Barrett opened up a huge lead in the 50km event at Kuala Lumpur in 1998, before he became dehydrated at the 49km mark and had to withdraw.

On the other hand, the New Zealand tally was bolstered by the strange decision in the 1990s and early 2000s to award not one but three gold medals for weightlifting – one for the snatch, one for the clean and jerk, and one, it seemed, merely for adding up correctly.

Darren Liddel won three superheavyweight golds in 1998 and Nigel Avery came away with two golds and a silver at Manchester four years later. That generous medal system no longer applies.

Some great New Zealand sportsmen and women have announced themselves on the Commonwealth Games stage. Yvette Williams (long jump), Jean Stewart (swimming), Dutch Holland (hurdles), Murray Halberg (three miles), Bruce Biddle (road cycling), John Walker (1500m), Dick Quax (one mile), Gary Anderson (individual pursuit cycling), Paul Kingsman (200m backstroke), Anthony Mosse (200m butterfly), Beatrice Faumuina (discus), Sarah Ulmer (individual pursuit), Valerie Adams (shot put) and Nick Willis (1500m) are just some who tasted success at a Commonwealth Games and then went on to win Olympic medals.

Others, such as Ces Matthews (1938), Harold Nelson (1950), Roy Williams (1966), Graham May (1974), Dick Tayler (1974), Jaynie Parkhouse (1974) and Greg Yelavich (1986-2010) never did do it at an Olympics, but became national heroes because of their Commonwealth Games exploits.

So Adams and Chalaev were jostling to join illustrious company today.

In the end, who could deny Adams? The woman has hardly been beaten for a decade and is on a 50-plus winning streak. She doesn’t settle for second in anything and beat Chalaev by 17 minutes.

And Chalaev? It’s doubtful he’ll feel anything but honour in being No 601.