In the beginning
All forms of life are said to be the descendants of Tane, one of the sons of Rangi, sky father and Papa, earth mother, therefore we are all related.
From the children of Rangi and Papa, through eons of time, came Toitehuatahi, one of the ancestors of our Maori people. He is the eater of the Ponga and Tii and is referred to as Toi Kairakau, the consumer of wood. His status as Tangatawhenua (people of the land) is significant, and our descent from this ancestor gives us one of our main connections to the land.
Today our forests are filled with ponga. They cloak us, protect us and heal. They inspire growth and reflect the essence of Aotearoa. The koru, or fern frond symbolises new beginning and life, growth, strength and peace. It is a symbol of our land, and the New Zealand Team.
A national sporting symbol
The silver fern is synonymous with achievement in New Zealand sport.
For more than 100 years, members of The New Zealand Team have been wearing the silver fern, a symbol that represents our national sporting hopes and dreams.
The silver fern became a symbol of bravery, sacrifice and allegiance when the New Zealand Army wore it during the Boer War at the turn of the 20th century. The fern is engraved on the tombstones of those who New Zealanders fell during both World Wars. Our All Blacks Teams also wore it from 1893 as part of their official uniform.
New Zealand’s Olympic history began back in 1908 at the London Games, when the New Zealand athletes were part of an Australasia team. The emblem on their shirts bore a tiny kiwi and silver ferns beneath an emu and kangaroo. While we were yet to stand alone as Aotearoa, for the first time, an Olympic medal was awarded to a New Zealand athlete, Harry Kerr, proudly wearing the silver fern.
But it wasn’t until the 1920 Olympic Games in Antwerp that a team marched under the New Zealand flag, and the four athletes competed in black singlets with the silver fern emblem hand-sewn over their hearts.
Violet Walrond, New Zealand’s first female Olympian, also tucked a fern frond into her hatband. Aged only 15, Walrond made the finals of both the 100m and 300m freestyle – swum in cold, murky canal waters – and remains the youngest New Zealand Olympian to wear the silver fern.
World War 1 veteran Darcy Hadfield won bronze in the men’s single in Rowing at the Antwerp Games and was the first athlete to be presented with an Olympic medal, wearing the silver fern.
The Journey of the Fern Continues
The significance of the fern was growing and its place in the story of the New Zealand Team was about to take another step in its journey.
In 1927, the then Olympic Council of New Zealand determined that ‘the colours of the association shall be black and silver with a fern leaf’.
This was the founding moment of the NZ Olympic masterbrand featuring the silver fern and formal acknowledgement of the significance of the fern to the New Zealand Team.
In 1952, in Oslo, the very first New Zealanders competed at an Olympic Winter Games. In the words of athlete Sir Roy McKenzie the team was ‘given black sweaters and had silver fern patches to sew on…”
At the Games in Rome 1960, the Olympic rings appeared on the formal New Zealand Team blazer for the first time alongside the fern.
In 1978 the silver fern was integrated above the five Olympic rings and first appeared on a New Zealand team uniform at the 1980 Games in Moscow.
While most of the team were not allowed to compete due to an international boycott, the five New Zealanders that defied pressure to represent New Zealand chose the silver fern and what it meant over the views of the government and authorities of the time.
This integrated symbol was the beginning of the ‘rings and fern’ masterbrand as it known today.
A Living Fern
The fern as worn by the New Zealand Team to the Olympic and Commonwealth Games has evolved in its design over the years.
From simple and varying renditions from our early athletes to the open frond design in 1978 and a further softening and refinement in the last decade of the 20th century, the fern’s form has evolved to reflect the style of the times.
The fern has accompanied the New Zealand Team across the world. From our first games in London in 1908, to our most recent right next door on the Gold Coast.
While there have been increments of change, it’s place in the hearts of our athletes has remained constant.
The legacy of the ‘rings and fern’ – what it means to the New Zealand Team today
Over the years that New Zealand has been represented at Olympic and Commonwealth Games, the fern has come to mean so much to so many, and while it’s design may have changed over the years, it’s meaning hasn’t.
We reflect on the stories of the New Zealand Team, from our earliest days.
Olympian Maurice “Pom” Crow represented New Zealand at the London Olympic Games in 1948. The fern to him was a symbol of success, of achievement and of reverence.
“The Silver Fern? No, never in my lifetime thought I would wear it,” he later said.
Winter Olympian Sir Roy McKenzie recounted after his games experience at Oslo in 1952 how ‘the fern has represented our sporting hopes and dreams.”
Our athletes today tell us the same.
“When you get to wear that fern on your chest it’s a really special moment and it gives you strength.” – Holly Robinson, Para javelin, 2018 Commonwealth Games, silver medal.
“Putting the silver fern on gives me goose bumps.” Helena Gasson, 2018 Commonwealth Games, swimming
“The fern is something tangible that’s able to inspire the next generation.” George Muir, Hockey
“Once I’m out there, with the fern on me, singing the national anthem….it makes me think about everything that’s happened for myself and my family to get to that point.” Temalisi Fakahokotau, Netball, 2018 Commonwealth Games.
Whether attending the Olympic Games, Winter Olympic Games or the Commonwealth Games, the fern encourages the Team excel, and become part of something bigger.
From the fern’s earliest days, it has represented our values of excellence, integrity, leadership, respect and pride.
The silver fern is our symbol.
It is what connects our athletes to one another, to those who have worn it before and those who will wear it after. It connects our athletes to where they come from, to our people and to our land, Aotearoa, New Zealand.
It inspires the New Zealand Team to grow and to find the strength they need to represent Aotearoa on the world’s stage.
It inspires the New Zealand Team today, as it has done for a hundred years.
The silver fern is a symbol of our land, our people, and of the New Zealand Team.