By Dr. Micheal Warren
As Christmas looms and we look towards a well-earned summer break, many of our athletes are about to begin 2020 with their eyes firmly on looming Olympic games. The next months will be vital in preparation. New Zealand remains on track to send its largest-ever team to the Olympic games, with more than 200 athletes expected to compete.
New Zealand at the Olympic Games: Rowing
This final blog for 2019 will focus on the sport of rowing. New Zealand has won 24 medals in the sport of rowing, including 11 gold medals, making this New Zealand’s most successful Olympic sport.
New Zealand first competed as an independent nation at the 1920 Olympic Games in Antwerp. Rower Darcy Hadfield won New Zealand’s only medal in 1920, a bronze in the men’s single sculls.
After failing to send rowers to the 1924 and 1928 Olympic Games, New Zealand was back in the medals in 1932, winning silver in the men’s pair (Bob Stiles and Rangi Thompson). After winning silver in Los Angeles, it would take until Mexico City in 1968 for New Zealand to be back in the medals.
There was much talk about the high altitude of Mexico City and its effect on athletes in the build-up to the games. In rowing, the men’s coxed four weren’t favoured to win a medal in 1968, but they defied the odds to make the final. In the final, New Zealand won the gold medal by almost three seconds ahead of East Germany and Switzerland. The shock gold took everyone by surprise, as expectations were high that the men’s eight would win gold.
The men’s eight were considered as New Zealand’s best rowers and the four were the back-up crew. The men’s eight narrowly missed winning a medal in Mexico City, finishing in fourth.
Four years later, in Munich, it was the men’s eights time to shine. After winning their heat and finishing second in their semi-final, New Zealand was confident of a good showing. The black uniform was dominant in the final winning the gold medal by almost three seconds. The images of that victory and the medal ceremony is perhaps one of the most enduring of New Zealand’s Olympic history. Also in Munich, the men’s four won the silver medal capping off a stunning regatta for New Zealand, establishing New Zealand as a rowing powerhouse.
New Zealand was out to defend their eight’s title in Montreal in 1976. However, in the opening heat, New Zealand was pushed into second by Australia, but bounced back to win the recharge and qualify for the final. In the final, New Zealand was in the mix throughout, but couldn’t keep up with the pace of East Germany and Great Britain. New Zealand won the bronze medal. The men’s coxed and coxless fours narrowly missed bronze, finishing in fourth place.
In 1984, hopes were high that New Zealand would once again finish amongst the medals. While the eight’s missed out on the bronze medal, finishing fourth, it was the men’s coxless fours who dominated the final to win gold by almost three seconds ahead of home town favourites the United States. New Zealand also won bronze in the men’s coxed fours.
Three bronze medals were won in rowing in 1988, with Nikki Payne and Lynley Hannen (women’s pairs) becoming the first females to win rowing medals for New Zealand. The men’s coxed fours and Eric Verdonk in the single sculls won bronze.
While New Zealand failed to medal in rowing at Barcelona in 1992 and Atlanta in 1996, Sydney 2000 would bring about a golden return for New Zealand. Rob Waddell who finished seventh in the single sculls in Atlanta, went into Sydney 2000 as the favourite after winning the preceding two world championships. New Zealand experienced a disappointing Olympic Games in 2000, and the nation eagerly awaited the final of the men’s single sculls on the morning of Saturday 23 September. Waddell’s major competition came from defending Olympic champion Xeno Muller of Switzerland. The race was tight throughout, with Waddell breaking away in the final stretch to claim New Zealand’s only gold medal in Sydney and beginning an unbroken record of producing Olympic champions as each subsequent edition of the Olympic Games.
The Athens 2004 Olympic Games heralded the Olympic emergence of the Evers-Swindell twins. Caroline and Georgina narrowly missed qualification for Sydney 2000 but started in the women’s double sculls in Athens as overwhelming favourites to claim gold. They would not disappoint. In the final, New Zealand shot out to a commanding lead and by the 1500m mark were well ahead of their rivals from Germany and Great Britain. The Evers-Swindell’s held on to win a popular gold medal.
The Evers-Swindell’s were back in Beijing four years later determined to defend their title. After a rocky preparation, the Ever-Swindell’s made the final and lined up against rivals from Germany, Great Britain and China. In one of the closest final’s in Olympic history, the Evers-Swindell’s successfully defended their title by 0.01 of a second head of Germany and Great Britain. In doing so, the Ever-Swindell’s became the first New Zealand rowers to defend an Olympic title. New Zealand won two further medals in Beijing, with Mahe Drysdale fighting off illness and dehydration to win bronze in the single sculls, and the men’s pair also won bronze.
New Zealand had its most successful Olympic regatta in history when London hosted in 2012. New Zealand won five medals, including three superb gold medals to the men’s pair of Eric Murray and Hamish Bond. Mahe Drysdale upgraded his Beijing bronze to win gold, and in a surprise result, New Zealand’s double sculls duo of Nathan Cohen and Joseph Sullivan came from no-where in the last 500m to win a perfectly timed gold medal. Bronze medals were also won in the women’s pair and the men’s lightweight double sculls.
It was a double golden delight for New Zealand at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games. Bond and Murray successfully defended their Olympic title in the men’s pair and Mahe Drysdale pulled out a massive final three strokes to pip Damir Martin of Croatia in a photo finish to claim single sculls gold. The women’s pair of Genevieve Behrent and Rebecca Scown won the silver medal behind Great Britain.
New Zealand won six medals at the 2019 World Rowing Champs, including four gold medals. With less than 250 days before the Olympic rowing regatta gets underway expect that streak of gold medals at every Olympiad dating back to Sydney 2000 to continue.