Story: Athletics

Page 5. The golden era begins, 1950 to 1969

All images & media in this story

1950 Empire Games

The 1950 Auckland Empire Games gave the perfect start to post-war athletics. Big crowds filled Eden Park for the four days of track-and-field events, and were rewarded with two gold medals – to Harold Nelson in the 6 miles (9.6 kilometres) and Yvette Williams in the long jump – as well as six silver and 12 bronze medals.

Popular participation

The 1950 games set the scene for four decades of athletic success, and participation levels continued to grow. Athletics was now a well-established sport in secondary schools and inter-school competitions. Most communities now had an athletic club. Air travel made international competition easier.

Success brought new spectator interest. By the 1960s crowds of tens of thousands watched the best New Zealanders compete against visiting overseas athletes.

Coaching programmes

There was a new interest in field events after the Second World War, encouraged by coaching programmes introduced by the New Zealand Amateur Athletic Association (NZAAA). Yvette Williams was the most successful participant, but others included throwers Les Mills and Val Young, and decathlete Roy Williams. All went on to win Commonwealth Games golds but, apart from Yvette Williams, they missed out on Olympic medals. Young came very close, coming fourth in the Olympics. Her New Zealand record of five Commonwealth Games gold medals has not been beaten.

International success, 1950s

After her 1950 victory Yvette Williams became one of New Zealand’s greatest international athletes. At the Helsinki Olympics in 1952 she made the final with her last qualifying long jump, and then won the gold with an Olympic record (6.24 metres). In 1954 Williams broke the world record with a leap of 6.28 metres. That year she went on to win three golds (long jump, discus and shot put) at the Vancouver British Empire and Commonwealth Games. She was a brilliant all-round athlete who also won national titles in javelin and hurdles.

Race walking produced New Zealand’s other big international success in the 1950s, when Norman Read won the 50-kilometre road walk at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics. There was less immediate success in middle distance and distance running. However, by the end of the decade Murray Halberg emerged as a new star, becoming the first New Zealander to run a mile in less than four minutes. He also won the 3 miles (4.8 kilometres) at the 1958 British Empire and Commonwealth Games.

Arthur Lydiard

Halberg’s victory owed much to the revolutionary ideas of his coach, Arthur Lydiard. Lydiard advocated that runners should run greater distances than most thought desirable, supplemented by shorter fast runs and hill training. His methods influenced coaching and training throughout the world.

Through the 1950s Lydiard tested his theories on a group of promising young runners, mainly, like him, from the working-class suburbs of Auckland. Halberg, Barry Magee and Bill Baillie were among them. Later a younger runner, Peter Snell, joined. Halberg was the first to gain international success.

The Snell era

No day in New Zealand’s athletic history has been quite as remarkable as 2 September 1960 at the Rome Olympics. First the unfavoured Peter Snell caught the favourite Roger Moens near the line to win the 800 metres. Less than an hour later Halberg burst away with three laps to go in the 5,000 metres, hanging on grimly to win.

For Snell, Rome was just the beginning. Early in 1962, at Cooks Gardens in Whanganui, he broke the world mile record. He was aiming for his first under-four-minute mile. He ran it in three minutes 54.4 seconds. The following week he broke the world records for 800 metres and 880 yards (805 metres).

At the 1964 Tokyo Olympics Snell’s ferocious finishing kick gave him easy wins in the 800 and 1,500 metres double – something no one had done since 1920. On his return to New Zealand he lowered his own mile record, after beating the 1,000 metres world record the week before.

Worth it

Marise Chamberlain won bronze in the 1964 Tokyo Olympics 800 metres: ‘it was absolutely overwhelming to me, really, and I did weep. I thought of the cold, wet nights, the hard frosty nights, no track, only a grass one ... so all of that, the culmination of all those years of these dreadful conditions, never once having my feet on beautiful ground to train with, it just swept over me and I thought: “We've done it – my coach and I. We've finally got a foot on this podium”’.1

Notable performances by other athletes included Barry Magee’s bronze for the marathon at Rome, John Davies’ bronze in the Tokyo 1,500 metres, Bill Baillie’s 1965 world records for the 20,000 metres and one-hour run, and Mike Ryan’s 1968 Olympic marathon bronze. In Dublin in 1961 Halberg, Snell, Magee and Gary Philpott teamed up to break the world 4 x 1 mile world record. This seldom-run event showed the new depth of New Zealand running.

Middle-distance runner Marise Chamberlain was New Zealand’s foremost female runner. In the late 1950s she broke the world record for 440 yards (402 metres). At the 1964 Olympics, still very inexperienced in international racing, she won bronze in the 800 metres. Later she ran a world’s best for the mile, although women’s world records were still not recognised for the distance.

Footnotes:
  1. ‘My Olympics: Marise Chamberlain,’ New Zealand Herald, 1 August 2008, http://www.nzherald.co.nz/sport/news/article.cfm?c_id=4&objectid=10524640 (last accessed 9 January 2013). Back
How to cite this page:

David Colquhoun, 'Athletics - The golden era begins, 1950 to 1969', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/athletics/page-5 (accessed 15 August 2018)

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