Biography

Norman Read Born 1931

Norman Read, the 1956 Olympic 50km walk gold medallist, was one of New Zealand’s least-acclaimed Olympic athletics champions. The ever-smiling Read, whose sudden death in 1994 was such a shock (he was Athletics New Zealand president at the time), has never received the recognition his feat deserved. 

Perhaps it’s because walking isn’t the most fashionable track and field discipline. Or because Read was relatively unknown to New Zealanders in 1956 – he’d emigrated from England in 1953. 

He took up walking because it was common where he grew up - Steyning, Sussex. He was born at Portsmouth, and was evacuated to Steyning during the war. “At school I played soccer, cricket, rugby and other sports, but walk was the big thing in our town.” 

Read, coached in England by Johnny Henderson, won several national junior titles, but decided, after attending the 1952 Helsinki Olympics and meeting a happy group of New Zealanders there, to move Down Under. He moved to New Zealand as a totally-assisted immigrant, when he was 22. 

Initially he was frustrated at the lack of road walking held in New Zealand. He worked at Ruapehu building a tramping hut and in his spare time climbed all over Tongariro and Ngauruhoe, feeling that walking at 6000ft altitude must help. In 1956 the national champs included road walks for the first time. He shifted to Trentham and started on longer walks, sometimes to the top of the Rimutakas and back. 

But though he was the best walker in the country, he failed to gain selection for the 1956 Olympics. He shifted to Melbourne in a last-ditch attempt to make the New Zealand team, winning the Australian walking trial in September in 4h 30min. Less than two months before the Games, he was finally was selected. 

Read was a crowd favourite during the Olympic walk. By the time the walkers had completed two laps of the Melbourne Cricket Ground and progressed to the streets outside, all 117,000 spectators were aware of him. “I decided to have one more nervous one while we were all in the dressing room. When I came back, they’d gone. I panicked and raced around trying to get to the track. I made it with two minutes to spare. When I came running out, the crowd all laughed.” 

Read walked at the 1960 Olympic Games, finishing a creditable fifth in the 20km event, and won a bronze medal at the 1966 Kingston Empire Games. 

He continued to walk, eventually winning 18 national titles from 1956-75, and got involved in coaching and administration. He was a member of the IAAF international walking panel and judged at the 1990 Auckland Commonwealth Games, the 1992 Barcelona Olympics and 1993 Stuttgart world champs. He also coached a number of leading New Zealand walkers, including Murray Day and Mike Parker. 

Read was heavily involved in athletics administration in Taranaki and in 1984 even offered to sell his Olympic gold medal to raise money for an all-weather track in Taranaki. 

He had a variety of jobs after moving to New Zealand. He was a carpenter-joiner until 1956, then had several stints working in, then owning, grocer shops in Hawera and Auckland. He lived in Whangarei for a time, but through the 1980s and until his death he worked in New Plymouth in the finance industry. 

Read was made New Zealand Sportsman of the Year in 1956 and voted into the Sports Hall of Fame in 1990. 

Besides the battle to establish walking, Read had to ward off suggestions he was not a New Zealander. “Coming from England made things harder,” he said. “I married a New Zealand woman and we had four kids, but I’d still hear suggestions I wasn’t a real New Zealander.” 

His most famous reply came at the press conference after his gold medal walk. “What are you,” asked one English journalist, “a Kiwi or a Pom?” 

“Call me a Pommie Kiwi,” Read shot back.