Long before Ian Ferguson became the first New Zealander to win triple gold - paddling on Lake Casitas at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics – he went to impressive lengths to wear the black singlet.
The canoeing legend competed at his first of five Olympics in Montreal in 1976, in the days before New Zealand athletes received funding. Having to work full-time as well as train, Ferguson spent every cent he had on canoeing. He’d drive across Europe to competitions and make his own uniforms.
“While I was in England, I’d buy some black singlets and go to New Zealand House and buy those little silver fern badges and stick them on. That’s what I raced in,” Ferguson said.
It turned out to be a very profitable investment. In 1984, Ferguson won two golds in the space of 90 minutes – teaming up with Paul MacDonald in the K2 500 – and claimed a third the following day in the K4 1000. Four years later, he added another gold and a silver in Seoul, to become one of our most medalled athletes (along with MacDonald and Mark Todd).
Boxing silver medallist Kevin Barry was one of the few New Zealanders who claimed a medal at the 1984 Olympics on his feet – even though he was illegally knocked to the canvas, by future world heavyweight champion Evander Holyfield. Barry won his semi-final through the American’s disqualification, but was deprived of his chance to fight for gold, as a victim of a knockout.
But the controversy could never take away from his pride.
“Wearing the black singlet with the silver fern, and watching the New Zealand flag raised at an Olympic Games was so much more than I could ever have envisaged,” Barry says today.
“It was the culmination of years of hard work and sacrifice – by both my family and myself. But it was the immense feeling of pride and patriotism towards my country and the sense that this was a victory for everyone at home, that I will never forget.
“The black singlet and silver fern brings an enormous sense of camaraderie to those who’ve worked so hard, triumphed through adversity and are now representing our great country with honour.”
Gary Anderson saw his slick black and white skinsuit as his “business suit”. In 1992, the Wanganui cyclist became the first Kiwi to receive an Olympic cycling medal – collecting bronze in the 4000m individual pursuit in Barcelona.
“I always really looked forward to getting my skinsuit or jersey for New Zealand. You’d have your other uniforms, but there was always something grander about black. It represented the pinnacle of years of preparation. It was THE jersey that really mattered.
“It was like a business suit – 10 percent of your performance was included in that suit. You knew when you put it on, you’re going to be that much faster.
“Even today I’ll watch a World Cup race on TV, and the commentators will say ‘The New Zealanders, looking striking in their black suits and black bikes…’. The rest of the world takes notice too.”
Sally Clark didn’t exactly get to wear a black singlet when she won silver on board Squirrel Hill in the individual three-day eventing in Atlanta 1996. Tradition demands that equestrian riders wear tailcoats, ties and top hats.
“The closest moment we have to pulling on a black singlet is on the second day of competition – cross-country day – when we get to wear a shirt with the silver fern and a black hat cover for our helmets. It’s most exciting! But no matter what the process, it doesn’t take away from the fact that you’re representing your country,” Clark says.
“It was a childhood dream for me to go to the Olympics, in any sport. But I’d never really considered the idea of winning a medal. I was always awestruck when I saw Kiwis standing on the podium with our national anthem playing.” And it was something that she got to do, standing on the dais next to fellow Kiwi Blyth Tait, who won gold.
For fellow equestrian rider Vicky Latta – who won silver in 1992 and bronze in 1996 in three-day team event – representing New Zealand was “way beyond my dreams”. A lawyer, she began competing internationally at the age of 37 – when other riders were retiring.
One of her favourite Olympic memories was having the chance to watch other sports and meet athletes from other codes.
“In the big food hall, you could spot the black and white uniform of other New Zealand team members and have someone to sit down and chat to. It was fantastic,” she recalls.
For four-time Olympian Lorraine Moller, the silver fern on a black backdrop always stood for New Zealand’s excellence and supremacy in sport.
“When I first wore all black with the silver fern at the age of 16, I was busting with pride,” she says. “The silver fern was an embroidered badge that I lovingly hand-sewed onto my black singlet. Even today the sight of the silver fern on black invokes those feelings of pride.”
When Moller was chosen to run the first ever women’s marathon in Los Angeles, she was torn. “In such heat, we sought dispensation to wear white rather than black. It was a sensible decision, but still one that had overtones of betrayal to the uniform - it ran that deep,” she says.
But as she burst into Barcelona’s Estadi Olimpic at the end of the 1992 women’s marathon, to claim bronze, there was no doubt who she was representing.
"Lorraine Moller is going in the black and white of the New Zealand uniform, and this must be the greatest day in her athletic history to win an Olympic bronze medal," the commentator cried out in 1992 as she crossed the finish line.
At 37, she was the oldest track and field medallist at those games, and a quarter of a century later, she can still remember that entire race.
“It gives me chills, just thinking about it… it's the most incredible feeling, and I feel like for one moment, you’re standing at the centre of the universe.”