The Black Singlet: The Golden Era 1952-64

Black Singlet – The Golden Era 1952-64

One of the most cracking tales of the black singlet belongs to long-distance runner Barry Magee – and the lengths he took to prepare himself for the heat of a Roman summer.

Before running the marathon on the final day of the 1960 Rome Olympics, Magee hatched a cunning plan to help him cope while racing in temperatures hovering around 30 degrees Celsius, in his team black singlet. “Because everybody knows that black cotton is the worst to run in in the heat,” Magee says.

Barry Magee 4

Three days before the race, he took a pair of scissors and attacked his sacred Olympic attire. After chopping 15cm off the length, he sliced 12 holes - each around 20mm long.  “Whatever breeze there was would travel through the holes and provide instant ventilation, and hopefully cool me down,” Magee recalls.

But Magee’s clever plan was almost foiled - by a gang of well-meaning Italian seamstresses, who came to the Olympic village offering to sew athletes’ race numbers on their shirts. “What I didn’t realise was that they spoke no English, so when my singlet was given back to me, each of the 12 holes had been neatly hand-sewn up.”

Magee painstakingly unpicked their handiwork and stood at the start-line in what he calls his “holy” singlet. It took him over rough cobblestones and through the dark to win a bronze medal in one of the Olympics’ toughest events.

“In all the international events I competed in, it always felt extra special to wear the black singlet with the silver fern; and extra, extra good to succeed with that singlet on,” Magee says today. And that precious hole-ridden singlet was extra good to Magee – he wore it again in 1961 to record the second-fastest 5000m and the fastest 10,000m in the world, and set a world record in the 4 x 1-mile relay.

“Apart from the Olympic medal, I have no more valued memento of all my Games adventures than that HOLY singlet,” he says.

Barry Magee

Barry Magee receives his bronze medal in Rome - Getty Images

Back in 1952, New Zealand’s first Winter Olympians – a hardy team of five skiers – were given the black uniform, with silver fern patches to sew on themselves before they headed to Oslo.

1952 Oslo First NZ Winter Olympic Team

 

 

The amateur status of sport was still very evident at the Summer Olympics that year, when track and field athlete Yvette Williams had to buy her own black rompers to compete in, along with her team black singlet.

In the drizzle and cold that enveloped the long jump final inside Helsinki’s Olympiastadion, Williams pulled on a white sweater and wrapped herself in a blue and white blanket to keep warm. 

It was a long wait between leaps – and an anxious one too. Williams’ first two attempts were ruled no-jumps. Having topped the qualifiers, she desperately needed a strong, legitimate jump on her third attempt or be eliminated from medal contention.

Stripping down her black uniform, Williams made the cut for the final six. Her fourth jump - using Jesse Owens’ “hitch kick”, perfected leaping off the sand dunes at St Clair Beach in Dunedin - she leapt 6.24m. It was an Olympic record, and ultimately the winning jump, to secure New Zealand’s third ever Olympic gold – and the first won by a female Kiwi athlete.

The elated New Zealanders in the stadium broke into a series of haka. Her room-mate and school mate from Otago Girls’ High, swimmer Jean Stewart, threw her arms around Williams in delight.  Stewart, too, left Helsinki with a medal – a bronze in the 100m backstroke.

Williams became the toast of New Zealand – feted in a whistle-stop tour from Auckland to her hometown, Dunedin. “At every town, school kids would wave flags and hand me bouquets,” she says. “It was all a bit overwhelming for me.

"I never craved the limelight – I was just happy to perform on the field.”

Four years later, Norman Read – a Wellington builder who had immigrated from England in 1953 – soaked up the roar of 117,000 cheering and whistling onlookers as he led the 50km walk field into the Melbourne Cricket Ground. Wearing the black singlet with a large No. 10, and a white handkerchief knotted around his neck to ward off the blazing sun, there was no doubt which nation Read was representing. 

“And there’s the black uniform – and listen to that crowd!” radio commentator Lance Cross told New Zealanders crowded around their wirelesses back at home.

Nevertheless, British journalists later questioned him about his right to represent New Zealand. “Look, I’m a Pommy Kiwi and proud of it,” the new gold medallist declared.

Peter Snell was 21 years old and a virtual unknown when he caught the attention of a famous Hollywood actor.

1960 Peter Snell 800m Finish

Legend has it that in 1960, when crooner Bing Crosby took his seat in the stands of Rome’s Stadio Olimpico, he pointed the stem of his pipe at the six athletes lined up for the Olympic 800m final and asked “Who’s the big guy in black?”

An American journalist replied: “Oh, that’s Snell from New Zealand. He’s run okay but the pressure will get to him. He hasn't a show."

How he proved that scribe wrong. In a race run at blistering pace right from the starter’s gun, Snell challenged world record holder Roger Moens in the final straight, and with a desperate lunge, pipped the Belgian at the tape. The New Zealander – dressed in black with a white fern on his left breast – didn’t know he’d won (and in Olympic record time) until Moens draped an arm over his shoulder and told him.

Murray Halberg was waiting in the stadium tunnel with the other 5000m finalists when he heard “Schnell” had won the 800m gold. It was the final spur Halberg needed: “Pete had done it. So could I.”

Halberg, slight but strong, ran the last three laps of the 5000m out on his own, urged on by Snell on the side of the track.  When he crossed the finishline, Halberg clutched at the finishing tape, and lay exhausted on the grassy infield with the white ribbon draped over his black singlet. This was the legendary “Golden Hour” of New Zealand’s Olympic history.

1960 Murray Halberg on ground

Murray Halberg lies, exhausted, after winning Gold in 1960

On the eve of winning two further golds in Tokyo four years later, Snell told a documentary crew: "It always gives a feeling of exhilaration to run in the New Zealand all black singlet." 

Helsinki 1952 Rome 1960 Olympic Summer Games Peter Snell Murray Halberg Barry Magee Yvette Williams Jean Hurring Norman Read Athletics Swimming
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