What do the 1500m men’s track race and the equestrian three-day individual event have in common for New Zealand at the Olympic Games?
They are the two events at which New Zealand has had most success. In both, New Zealanders have won three gold medals, a silver and two bronzes.
New Zealand’s six medals in the three-day event have been produced by just three competitors. Mark Todd won gold in 1984 and 1988 and bronze in 2000. Blyth Tait won gold in 1996 and bronze in 1992 and Sally Clark won silver in 1996.
In the 1500m, New Zealand’s six medals have each been won by a different athlete.
Jack Lovelock won a famous gold medal in front of Hitler at Berlin in 1936, and set a world record into the bargain. He had been a 1500m finalist four years earlier in Los Angeles. Peter Snell won the third of his Olympic golds when he outclassed the 1500m field at Tokyo in 1964. And John Walker withstood the pressure of being the overwhelming favourite to win the gold medal at Montreal in 1976.
In addition, John Davies picked up a bronze behind Snell in 1964 and the emerging Rod Dixon won a fighting bronze at Munich in 1972. The latest success was Nick Willis’ thrilling silver medal at Beijing in 2008. Willis stormed home to finish third and, after drug testing was completed, was promoted to second.
Bearing in mind New Zealand’s proud tradition in the blue riband 1500m event, it’s only fitting that no less than three athletes will be wearing the silver fern in Rio de Janeiro – Willis (back for his fourth Olympics, a tribute to his longevity), Julian Matthews and Hamish Carson. This is the first Olympic Games at which New Zealand will have three 1500m representatives.
The 1500m is a particularly tough event because there are so many talented African runners capable of running sizzling times.
Nevertheless, the New Zealanders have their hopes. Willis has had a brilliant career that includes a Commonwealth Games gold medal and two bronzes, quite apart from his magic run in Beijing. The Lower Hutt man has run exceptionally well this season and even at 33 has retained his finishing speed. He recorded a personal best of 3min 29.66s for the 1500m last year and in a tactical race, as so many finals are, could well be a factor.
Matthews, 27, emerged in Nelson, but from 2008-13 was involved on the American college scene. He qualified for the 2014 Commonwealth Games, where he finished ninth in the final. A swift time of 3min 36.14s at Swarthmore, Pennsylvania, in May earned him his Olympic spot.
The third New Zealander to qualify for the 1500m was Carson, a 27-year-old from Raumati South. He recorded 3min 36.25s in that same race in Swarthmore. Carson has produced his personal best 1500m and one-mile times this year, so approaches Rio in the best form of his life. He is coached by 93-year-old Arch Jelley – arguably the world’s oldest Olympic coach - who guided John Walker’s fortunes through the 1970s and 80s.
Willis, Matthews and Carson are following in some impressive footsteps for New Zealand in the Olympic 1500m race.
Fourteen men have represented New Zealand in the event. Quite apart from the six medallists, Neville Scott and Murray Halberg were finalists in Melbourne in 1956, Tony Polhill in 1972 and Tony Rogers in 1984.Rio 2016 Tokyo 1964 Berlin 1936 Olympic Summer Games Nicholas Willis Peter Snell Jack Lovelock Tony Rogers John Walker Arch Jelley Sally Clark Julian Matthews Hamish Carson Hamish Carson Athletics