Graham May lifted only briefly at international level, but in that time he gave New Zealand two sports moments that will always be remembered. Both occurred during the 1974 Christchurch Commonwealth Games.
May defied lack of experience and strong opposition to win the gold medal in the super-heavyweight division, recalling the feat of Don Oliver a decade earlier.
Even more memorable was his performance in the final, when he made his bid for Minties Moment of the Decade. He tottered on the edge of the stage with a formidably heavy weight above his head. As he struggled to control the bar, he edged forward to the front of the platform. It was agony for May, and for those watching and willing him to steady the bar and succeed with the lift that would put him on the path to the gold medal.
The 21-year-old bespectacled New Zealander never did control that lift. Eventually the bar began to fall in front of him. He couldn’t hold on to it and it crashed off the stage towards the chief referee, who beat a hasty retreat. May was spread-eagled on the stage, having fallen flat on his face. Meanwhile the still the rampant weights careered on towards the various VIPs in the front two rows, who had to abandon some of their dignity in favour of safety. Finally the weights were controlled, ironically by Precious McKenzie, the smallest lifter at the Games.
May was a popular member of that New Zealand weightlifting contingent, which was almost certainly the strongest fielded by New Zealand. He and Tony Ebert won gold medals, John Bolton and Brian Marsden silvers and Bruce Cameron, Brian Duffy and Rory Barrett bronzes.
The big lifter, then living in Auckland, had very limited international experience before Christchurch – just two Australian competitions. In 1975 he competed at the New Zealand Games, finishing second to the incomparable Russian Vasily Alexeyev, and later at the world championships in the Philippines, where his seventh placing was the highest of a non-Communist performer.
Then he retired. He became a committed Christian and felt the strong emphasis on victory in sport, to the extent that even drug-taking became a necessity, did not gel with his beliefs. He made the news again in 1989 when he admitted he’d taken steroids before competing in Christchurch, a brave thing to concede publicly, even if steroids were not officially banned until a year or so after those Games. His offer to return his medal was declined.
He once spoke about his memories of those Christchurch Games. “In hindsight, I was terribly inexperienced, even though I was the top-ranked lifter in the super-heavyweight division. I was a little lucky that the Australian, Ray Rigby, wasn’t allowed to lift. He was picked as both a shot putter and a weightlifter and the Australians decided he’d have to stick to shot putting at the Games, which suited me.
“Then the Canadian, Nigel Prior, who had won Games gold previously, elected to contest the heavyweight class, which probably deprived John Bolton of the gold there, but certainly helped my chances.”
May’s biggest rivals were the Welshman, Terry Perdue, and the Englishman, Andy Kerr. The British lifters had far more experience because they’d competed regularly at world and European championships.
“Even though I won the gold, I wasn’t totally happy with my performance, and I’d say it was lack of experience that was partly responsible.
“On my first snatch, I ripped a callous off my left thumb, and that was a handicap for the rest of the contest. I was feeling a lot of pressure, mainly self-induced, and had that rushing feeling you get when things are happening over which you don’t have total control.
“I got my second snatch and missed my third, which would have been a Commonwealth record. It dropped over the back of my head. I nearly had it, but couldn’t control it and it crashed into the floor, grazing my head on the way.
“It was here that the Poms showed their experience. They forced me to lift early in the clean and jerk, which meant I didn’t get much of a rest, because I’d been the last lifter in the snatch.
“The first clean and jerk attempt was the one people remember. I went into it ill-prepared. The crowd, the television lights, the heat, the occasion. The whole thing was more than I was used to. I wasn’t composed.”
May, wearing a yellow T-shirt under his black New Zealand lifting uniform, said it was the worst moment of his lifting career. “I struggled to get the bar under control and couldn’t release it because I never got the signal from the chief referee. Actually, a few people thought it was a fair lift, but he didn’t. I edged to the front, still trying desperately to keep the thing still.
“Finally I was as far forward as I could go and the bar started to drop in front of me. I sort of blacked out for a split second… not really blacked out so much as just a momentary blank spell.
“The bar crashed over the front edge of the platform and the referee scrambled out of it way as it thundered towards him. Then it carried on towards the dignitaries. I suppose it looked very funny, but I didn’t see the humour then. I had an indescribably sick feeling because my precious gold medal was in jeopardy. I’d like to have been a thousand miles away just then.”
May was supposed to have lifted again within three minutes, but the New Zealand coaches, Don Oliver and Jack Morrison, suddenly got very meticulous about seeing that the mess from May’s previous lift had been put right. They asked for the holes in the platform to be fixed and for everything to be safe and sound. That took a good five minutes, which gave May time to compose himself.
“I went out there and got the next lift. Then Kerr got a lift, which put him back in front, so I had to make my last lift, which I did, giving me a total of 342.5kg. Kerr still had one more chance to win the gold, but just as he was about to make his last lift, Princess Anne walked in. She’d been at dinner next door. So the whole auditorium stood for her. Andy said it didn’t affect him, but it can’t have helped.
“I just thought the whole thing was like a circus, with me dropping the bar, Princess Anne coming in, all the television lights and so on. It was hard for me. I was nervous enough and there were a lot of well-wishers coming up and speaking to me when all I wanted was quiet to compose myself.”
May said his overwhelming feelings when he won were of relief and also a tinge of disappointment, because he felt he had not got quite the total he might have.
“I lifted for another year, but once I became a committed Christian, my goals and perspective on life completely changed. I feel we put too much store by who lifts an extra kilo or runs a split second faster and that there are more important things in life.”
May was the manager of J Rattray, a cash-and-carry firm in Christchurch and drifted away from the weightlifting scene. Even so, his premature death in 2006, at the age of just 54, was a shock to his many friends. He had become a lay preacher and a chaplain at Rolleston Prison.
Graham's Games History
Commonwealth Games Christchurch 1974