Story: Athletics

Page 4. Athletics between the wars

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Growth of amateur athletics

Amateur athletics went into recess during the First World War, but was soon stronger than ever. It was becoming an established sport in public and private schools and international successes fostered new interest. Club membership continued to grow, with club harrier running in particular increasing in popularity. By 1939 there were 140 athletic and harrier clubs affiliated to the New Zealand Amateur Athletic Association (NZAAA) – the number had more than doubled in just 15 years.

The name says it all

The decline of professional athletics was clearly evident in the New Zealand Athletic Union’s name change. By the end of the 1930s the organisation was called the New Zealand Athletics, Cycling and Axemen’s Union and its main interest was in wood chopping.

Professional athletics remained strong in many country areas, but was in slow decline. For the best athletes there was more prestige in the amateur ranks.

International competition

The first post-war international success came in 1919, when several New Zealanders did well in military competitions in England and France. The star was a former professional, Dan Mason, who helped the mile medley relay team to victories over English teams, and then won the 800 metres at the widely publicised Inter-Allied Games in Paris.

By now the Olympics was becoming the measure of athletic excellence. New Zealand regularly sent teams, but faced ongoing problems of distance and inexperience. The two medals won between the wars went to expatriates based in England and familiar with northern-hemisphere conditions. The first was Arthur Porritt, a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, who won bronze in the 100 metres at the 1924 Paris Olympics. This race was immortalised in the 1981 British film Chariots of fire.

A local hero

Randolph Rose never ran at the Olympics or Empire Games, but in the 1920s he was one of New Zealand’s best-known athletes. He won national and Australasian titles, but it was his victories over visiting American Lloyd Hahn in 1926 that made him most famous. In a five-race series, Hahn won the first but Rose won the rest. At Masterton he ran a mile in four minutes 13.6 seconds, a world-class time that smashed the New Zealand record.

The second Olympic medal was Jack Lovelock’s 1,500 metres gold, won with a world-record time (three minutes 47.8 seconds), at Berlin in 1936. It was the culmination of a remarkable sporting career. Like Porritt, Lovelock was a Rhodes Scholar who gained skill and experience in English athletics. In 1933 he broke the world mile record and for the next three years his clashes with the best middle-distance runners in America, Europe and Britain were constantly in the headlines of the world sporting press. He was New Zealand’s first international athletics superstar.

Success at the British Empire Games (the forerunner to the Commonwealth Games) was a little easier. At the first Empire Games, in Canada in 1930, Bill Savidan (6 miles) and Stan Lay (javelin) won their events. Lovelock won New Zealand’s only gold medal (for the mile) at the 1934 Empire Games in London. In 1938 the games were in Sydney. This time distance was no handicap and New Zealand athletes had won three gold (Pat Boot in the 880 yards and Cecil Matthews in the 3 miles and 6 miles), a silver and five bronzes.

Women athletes

As far as early administrators were concerned, athletics was for men only. There were no women’s athletic events at the Olympics until 1928, and the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) did not recognise women’s records until 1936. Women were limited to the sprints, hurdles and selected field events until well into the second half of the century.

Obstacles to woman athletes

In response to requests for a women’s championship the NZAAA council produced a report from the Wellington branch of the British Medical Association which stated that women were ‘neither physically nor physiologically adapted to sustained strenuous muscular exertion’.1 Council vice-president Harold Amos declared that he would resign rather than see women participating. The NZAAA relented, but only gradually – as late as 1940 it still argued that women did not ‘have the constitution’ for any race longer than 150 yards (137 metres).

Women joined existing athletics clubs, and women’s athletic clubs were formed in Auckland, Wellington and Masterton in the early 1920s. In 1923 a little-known athlete from Masterton, I. Johnson, ran a world’s best time for the 440 yards (402 metres), and later in the decade women organised their own harrier runs. Women’s sprint events were included in local meetings and some centre championships.

Despite this local support, the NZAAA national council took a very conservative approach, initially rejecting all requests for a women’s championship. In 1926 a women’s 100 yards (91 metres) was finally included in the national championships, but it was not until 1939 that women were given their own full championship meeting.

New Zealand’s best women sprinters soon proved so good that they could not be ignored. Gisborne runner Norma Wilson was the first to shine. Her times matched the world’s best and she was selected for the 1928 Olympic team.

Elaine Martyn (in 1929) and Thelma Kench (in 1930) both equalled the world 100-yard record – although, unfortunately, it was not then an official world record distance. In 1939 another young runner, Doreen Lumley, equalled the world record of 11.0 seconds. At the 1938 Empire Games New Zealand women athletes won their first international games medals, with Rona Tong (80-metre hurdles) and Betty Forbes (high jump) both winning bronze.

Footnotes:
  1. Evening Post, 10 March 1925, p. 3. Back
How to cite this page:

David Colquhoun, 'Athletics - Athletics between the wars', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/athletics/page-4 (accessed 18 January 2018)

Story by David Colquhoun, published 5 Sep 2013, updated 20 Sep 2016