By Dr Micheal Warren

We are now under 250 days until the Olympic Games kick off in Tokyo on July 24, 2020, and the New Zealand team continues to grow. Over the past few weeks, New Zealand gained quota spots in football and hockey as the men's team qualified in both events. Natalie Rooney also won the Oceania shooting champs gold medal in the women’s trap event to qualify a spot for the games alongside Chloe Tipple. Rooney will be looking to replicating her silver won in Rio. 

New Zealand at the Olympic Games: Athletics

This months blog will focus on athletics, which is New Zealand’s second most successful Olympic sport, winning 24 medals, including 10 gold. However, New Zealand’s first Olympic athletics medal came in 1908 as part of a combined Australasian team. Harry Kerr from Inglewood in Taranaki won bronze in the 3,500m walking event.

1908 Harry Kerr first medal
Harry Kerr - New Zealand's first Olympic medal as part of the Australasian team.

At the 1924 Paris Olympic Games, Arthur Porritt won bronze in the 100m, to date New Zealand’s only medal in a sprint event. Porritt would go on to be New Zealand’s team manager at the 1934 British Empire Games and the 1936 Olympics. Porritt was a member of the IOC from 1934 to 1967 and also served as New Zealand’s 11th Governor-General from 1967 to 1972.

On the eve of World War II, Berlin hosted the 1936 Olympic Games, and Jack Lovelock became one of the stars of the game. Under the watchful gaze of Adolf Hitler, Lovelock won gold in the men’s 1500m, winning in a world record time. In the final, Lovelock took the lead with 300m remaining and established a sizeable lead over American ironman Glenn Cunningham that he never relinquished, eventually winning in 3min 47.8s.

The 1952 Olympic Games in Helsinki would also bring about the creation of another star from New Zealand. This time Yvette Williams would jump herself into the record books. Williams won the gold medal in the long jump, and her winning distance of 6.24 m was a new Olympic record. With this, Williams became the first New Zealand woman to win an Olympic gold medal. John Holland also won a bronze medal in the 400m hurdles, to round out a successful Olympics for New Zealand.

Four years later in 1956, the Olympic Games were held in the Southern hemisphere for the first time, when Melbourne hosted. Once again New Zealand would stand top of the dais in athletics. In perhaps the most gruelling event of athletics, the 50km walk, Normal Reid claimed the gold medal. The self-proclaimed Pommie-Kiwi won by more than two minutes over more fancied rivals from the Soviet Union.

The 1960 Olympic Games in Rome are known for the ‘golden hour’ for New Zealand when in the space of one hour New Zealand won two gold medals in athletics. First up was the men’s 800m final where outsider Peter Snell surprisingly made the final. In the final Snell would find himself boxed in for much of the race until the final 80 metres where he broke through to pass Roger Moens of Belgium and George Kerr of the West Indies to win a famous gold medal in Olympic record time. Next up was the final of the 5000m and Murray Halberg started as one of the favourites. In the final, Halberg employed his customary long kick for home with three laps to go. No one could stay with Halberg who ran away for the gold medal. New Zealand was the talk of the town, but it wouldn’t finish there. In the marathon event, Barry Magee won bronze behind the famous Abebe Bikila of Ethiopia who ran barefoot.

Snell was back four years later in Tokyo and successfully defended his 800m title, in commanding fashion. Snell also lined up in the 1500m, and the result was the same, a gold medal. Snell was joined on the podium by fellow New Zealander John Davies who won bronze. It was also bronze that Marise Chamberlain won in Tokyo, after finishing third in the women’s 800m.

There was much discussion over awarding Mexico City the rights to host the 1968 Olympic Games, due to its high altitude, and it was at this high altitude where Mike Ryan battled his way through the field to claim marathon bronze, behind Mamo Wolde of Ethiopia and Kenji Kimihara of Japan.

The Munich Olympic Games of 1972 will always be remembered for the Munich Massacre. But was in Munich were Rod Dixon came to national prominence. Dixon lined up in the 1500m final and ran the race of his life to win the bronze medal behind Pekka Vasala of Finland, and Kipchoge Keino of Kenya.

New Zealand found itself at the centre of the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal, due to the All Blacks rugby tour of South Africa. The tour led to more than 25 African nations boycotting the Games. In the 1500m Filbert Bayi of Tanzania, the world record holder was set to come up against New Zealand’s John Walker who in 1975 became the first man to run under 3:50 for the mile. However, due to the boycott, the Bayi-Walker race would not take place, and Walker became favourite to claim gold in the blue ribband event. Walker ran a strategic race in the final, to claim the gold medal. Dick Quax also won silver in the 5000m with Rod Dixon pipped for the bronze in fourth place.

The Spanish city of Barcelona hosted the 1992 Olympic Games, and Lorraine Moller who first represented New Zealand at the 1974 Commonwealth Games in Christchurch competed in her third Olympic marathon. On a hilly course, Moller prospered, willing a famous bronze medal.

New Zealand failed to win medals in athletics in 1996, 2000 and 2004. However, in 2008 Valerie Adams won New Zealand’s first gold since 1976 winning a dominant gold medal in the women's shot put. To add icing to the cake, Nick Willis won a surprise bronze medal in the men’s 1500m event but was later upgraded to silver after original gold medallist Rashid Ramzi of Bahrain failed a subsequent drug test.

Four years later in London, doping would once again be at the centre of athletics. In the women’s shot put, Adams was favourite to win gold and defended her title beating Gong Lijiao and Li Ling of China after Belarussian Nadzeya Ostapchuk failed a drug test and was subsequently disqualified. Adam’s received her gold medal several months after the London Olympics in an emotional medal ceremony at the Cloud in Auckland in front of 2,500 Kiwis. It is the only time an Olympic gold medal has been presented to an athlete on New Zealand soil.

Adams was back four years later in Rio and led for much of the competition before Michelle Carter of the United States threw a huge personal best in the final round to beat Adams into the silver medal. Adams is in training to qualify for Tokyo, which would be her fifth Olympic Games. Three bronze medals were also won in Rio, with Nick Willis becoming the oldest ever 1500m Olympic medallist and the first New Zealander to win multiple medals in the blue riband event. Tom Walsh won bronze in the shot put, becoming the first New Zealand male athlete to win a field medal. The third bronze medal came in the women’s pole vault, where Eliza McCartney stunned the field and perhaps herself to win a surprise bronze medal.

Alongside Adams, Willis, Walsh and McCartney will be hoping to once again line up in Tokyo to push for further glory in the Olympic Games most high profile sport!

Rio 2016 Tokyo 1964 Rome 1960 Melbourne 1956 London 1908 Olympic Summer Games Athletics
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