The amateurs organise
In 1887 representatives of various amateur clubs formed the New Zealand Amateur Athletic Association (NZAAA). Apart from some disarray in 1908, when personality clashes and regional rivalries led to a temporary collapse, the NZAAA proved to be very effective at organisation and promotion. Annual national championships were set up, regional centres were established and international contacts fostered.
In 1893 the first joint New Zealand–Australia athletics championships were held and in 1897 the NZAAA joined with Australian associations to form a new Australasian union. That trans-Tasman connection survived until 1927.
Aspiring New Zealand athletes relished the thought of competing in England. But the long sea voyage and unfamiliar conditions meant few could recapture their New Zealand form. Disappointed New Zealand athletes included distance runner William Simpson in 1902 and Randolph Rose in 1926. Walker Harry Kerr, bronze medallist at the 1908 Olympics, complained that his ‘heels were soft’ after the sea voyage, and he ran out of time to get fully fit.1
Early amateur stars
The best amateurs soon began to attract national attention. The first to do so was sprinter Jack Hempton, who stunned everyone with a wind-assisted 9.6-second 100 yards at the 1889 championships. The world record was 9.8 seconds. He equalled that in 1892 and this remained a New Zealand record for 55 years.
Other early stars included the distance runner William Simpson, who won the Australasian titles for the mile and 3 miles (4.8 kilometres) in 1901. Hurdlers Arthur Holder (a former professional) and George Smith produced world-class times and won a string of national titles.
Amongst the leading field events exponents in the late 1890s were two Māori pole vaulters: Jimmy Te Paa and Hori Eruera. Eruera won the Australasian title in 1897 and Te Paa did the same in 1899. In 1908 Harry Kerr, a former professional, was the first New Zealander to win an Olympic medal with a bronze in the 3,500-metre walk. He was competing for the Australasian (combined New Zealand and Australian) team.
Harriers and cross-country running
Some runners took up winter harrier running. Like track and field, harrier running had English origins. ‘Hare and hounds’ paper chasing was a popular public school sport from the early 19th century. Two ‘hares’ – good runners – left first leaving a trail of paper as they went. The rest then followed the traces, trying to catch up.
By the mid-1870s such events were being held in New Zealand, organised informally at first, but usually by members of amateur athletic clubs. In the 1890s clubs just for harrier running began to be formed. Road and cross-country races became popular. To cater for the new interest, the NZAAA organised a national cross-country championship in 1903 and it became an annual event in 1909.
At the turn of the century the best-known professional athlete was Napier runner Lachie McLachlan, who held a world professional record for the 220 yards (201 metres). Invercargill runner William Trembath turned professional after winning the amateur national and Australasian 880-yards (805-metres) titles in 1908, and beat Arthur Postle, Australia’s leading professional sprinter, in a world quarter-mile (402-metres) championship in Queensland in 1911.
The fad for long-distance pedestrianism faded by the end of the 1880s, as did the gambling excesses. Professional athletics continued, however, as an integral part of Caledonian games and other sports days, usually sharing the programme with various combinations of wood chopping, Highland dancing and cycling.
In 1905 the New Zealand Athletic Union (NZAU) was formed to promote professional athletics. It set up a regular national championship, coordinated national and regional events, and published rules and guidelines. By 1909 it had 10 district centres and 175 affiliated organisations. In the years before the First World War, professional athletics seemed in good health.