It’s sports trivia time. Who won a national junior hammer-throwing title, a New Zealand heavyweight weightlifting championship and was part of a champion sprint-relay combination? Need more clues? He represented New Zealand at every Olympic and Commonwealth Games from 1958-72. Still no? He won 13 national senior shot put titles and 11 senior discus titles. Alright, the give-away: He later became the mayor of Auckland. Yes, Les Mills, of course. The point is that Mills, who was New Zealand’s finest male shot put and discus competitor for the best part of 15 years, was an extraordinarily versatile sportsman. During the 1960s, he did so much weight training that he became New Zealand’s second-best weightlifter, behind his close friend and training partner Don Oliver. In 1966 Mills was chosen at both athletics and weightlifting for the Kingston Empire Games. A badly torn groin muscle prevented him fulfilling the weightlifting part of his schedule. He is recalled as a giant of a man who won Empire Games medals in 1958, 1966 and 1970. His national shot put record of 19.81m, set in Hawaii in 1967, endured for 44 years until Jacko Gill beat it in 2011. In 1990 he was one of the inaugural inductees into the Sports Hall of Fame. Mills, born in Auckland in 1934, was the New Zealand junior shot put and discus champion in 1952. Yet he was also a formidable sprinter in his early days. In 1957, he was one of the Auckland quartet which won the national 4 x 110 yards title. The others were Barry Robinson, Morrie Rae and Graham Davy, so Mills, running at No 3, was in good company. Mills aimed for the 1956 Olympics, but a broken wrist - a rugby league injury - meant thoughts of competing in throwing events had to be discarded until late in the season. He decided instead to qualify for Melbourne as a runner. “I took up the 440 yards hurdles,” he said. “It was a bit tricky, because I had my arm in plaster. I did better on the flat and won an Auckland 440 yards title and came fifth in the nationals. “The next year I ran a 21.6 for the 220 yards and got myself a world ranking, believe it or not. It was the race in Hamilton in which Don Jowett set the New Zealand record of 21.2.” Though he dabbled in the sprints, and represented New Zealand in weightlifting, Mills’ sports prowess was always in the shot and discus. His first games was the 1958 Empire Games at Cardiff where he won a medal that meant as much as any to him because it was his first - the discus silver. “I led for a round or two before du Plessis, the South African, came through. He was far better, but getting the silver and beating two Englishmen who’d been expected to get medals was a real thrill.” In 1960 he was chosen as the New Zealand team captain and flag bearer for the Rome Olympics. He finished 11th in the shot put and 28th in the discus that year. At the 1962 Perth Empire Games he was 5th in the discus and 6th in the shot put. By the time of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, Mills had improved considerably. Only a last-round effort by a Russian deprived him (by half an inch) of going into the top six throw-off. At the 1966 Empire Games, in Kingston, Jamaica, he won the discus gold medal, though not without problems. “I led going into the fifth round. Then I got out a very big one, but slipped as I threw. As I fell over, my shoulder touched outside the circle and fouled the throw. “I’d hurt myself badly, but tried not to panic. I walked quietly to a nearby seat and tried to sit calmly, looking rather smug, as if saying to Steen, Hollingsworth, Tait and the rest, ‘I’ve got the lead. You see if you can top me.’ It was bluff. My groin was badly torn and I could hardly put my foot on the ground. Fortunately no-one did beat me. “I tried weightlifting in the gym the next day. I thought I might be able to lift on one leg, using the other as a prop. But it was no good. I could put the shot though. “I got our doctor, Mayne Smeeton, to give me three pain-killing injections. They only partly worked, but at least I’d qualified after three puts. I forfeited the fourth while I went back and told him I wanted the leg totally numb. I ended up with the silver. Steen got the gold. Before the Games we’d been level-pegging, so it wasn’t a bad result.” He was injured at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics and struggled to finish 11th in the shot put. But he bounced back well at the 1970 Edinburgh Commonwealth Games, when he took silver in the discus and bronze in the shot put. A major blow was hurting his leg in a warm-up meet before the 1972 Munich Olympics and not being able to do himself justice when he felt in the best form of his life. He was 14th in the discus and 23rd in the shot put that year. Another highpoint was winning the 1969 Pacific Conference Games title, because among those he beat were many top Americans. There were some hurtful moments, too, inflicted by selectors, he said. “In the old days a number of deserving athletes missed Games selection. Dave Norris, Roy Williams Jeff Julian, Joy’s a long list, and I’m on there, too. “In 1956 I qualified several times for the Melbourne Olympics, but wasn’t picked. I was more annoyed in 1964 when three of us - Roy Williams, rower Murray Watkinson and I - competing overseas, were all ranked in the world’s top 10. They never chose us. “I was really steamed up. I was living in America then - I went to college there from 1962-64 - and the competition was intense. My performances improved tremendously. Finally I beat Parry O’Brien, the double Olympic champion, and they had to put me in. Murray made it too, but Roy never did, a terribly sad mistake.” By 1974, when the Commonwealth Games were held in Christchurch, Mills was the veteran of New Zealand athletics. He was still a good shot putter and when he was omitted from the team, there was an outcry. The issue became emotional because his wife Colleen, son Philip and daughter Donna all made the team. It could have been a unique family occasion. “It would have been super to be chosen. I should have been in on my merits. I was a cripple, held together by bandages and goodness knows what. But even injured I was putting quiet well, certainly good enough to make the top eight. “I had a great time in Christchurch anyway, coaching a couple of athletes, looking after my family and doing television commentaries. On top of that Ron Scott appointed me attache to the St Lucia team of one woman. It would have been nice to be chosen, though.” From 1974–1976, Mills was national sports director of Papua New Guinea. He returned to New Zealand to become the national athletics association’s first director of coaching from 1977-79. In 1978 he was a New Zealand coach at the Edmonton Commonwealth Games. Mills began to spend more time building his fitness centre business, which he’d begun in 1968. Eventually Les Mills centres were to be found in all New Zealand’s main cities. Through a lifetime of watching athletics, he Mills nominated three performances by New Zealanders as most memorable. “There’s was Murray Halberg’s incredibly gutsy gold medal run in the 5000m at the Rome Olympics, Peter Snell’s total domination of the middle-distance fields in 1964 and Robin Tait winning the Commonwealth Games discus in 1974.” In 1988, Mills became general manager of Northland Harbour Board and then Northland Regional Council General Manager. From 1990-98 he was Auckland mayor. Despite his busy busin

News and Blogs

Joseph Romanos writes: Nick Willis the ideal flag-bearer

27 July 2012

Nick Willis continued a grand tradition when he was today named as the 2012 New Zealand Olympic team captain and flag-bearer.