Story: Athletics

Page 6. The golden era continues, 1970 to 1990

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Running boom

In the 1970s and 1980s millions of people took up running in what was described as the international running boom. It had its origins in the United States, and the enthusiasm was at least as great in New Zealand. Most famously the annual Auckland Round the Bays fun run became one of the largest in the world. It began in 1973 and by 1982, 80,000 were taking part. Around the country a host of new marathons, half marathons, fun runs and trail runs were started.

At first the boom helped foster the growth of athletics and many of the new events were organised by athletic clubs. In 1982 New Zealand Amateur Athletic Association (NZAAA) senior registrations reached almost 10,000 (not counting children, juniors and veterans). But it steadily declined after that. As the number of independent events increased many participants found they could obtain the social and competitive satisfactions of the sport without joining an athletics club.

New stars

After the retirement of Snell, Halberg, Magee, Baillie and others there was a relative lull in New Zealand athletic achievement. However, in the early 1970s a new group of world-class runners emerged.

Dick Quax was one of them. He broke the world 5,000 metres record in 1977 (in 13 minutes 12.87 seconds) and narrowly lost to Finnish runner Lasse Viren in an exciting 5,000-metres final at the 1976 Montreal Olympics. Rod Dixon was another. In a long career he produced a string of world-class performances from the 1,500 metres up to the marathon, winning a bronze in the 1,500 metres at the 1972 Munich Olympics.

Dick Tayler’s great run

The 10,000 metres was a feature event on the opening day of the 1974 Christchurch British Commonwealth Games. The stadium was packed and many more were watching on television. New Zealand was represented by Dick Tayler, who had never won a major international race. At half way he was 50 metres off the pace. Then he slowly fought back. Excitement grew as he caught the leaders, then sprinted home. Few victories have been as popular. Tayler seemed set for more great races, but shortly afterwards he was diagnosed with arthritis and had to give up running.

Best of all was John Walker. At the 1974 British Commonwealth Games in Christchurch he broke the old 1,500-metres world record, but came second behind Filbert Bayi. The following year he became the first person to run under three minutes 50 seconds for the mile, and in 1976 he continued the great New Zealand middle-distance tradition by winning an Olympic gold in the 1,500 metres. Few runners have been able to compete at such a high standard for so long. When he finally retired in 1992 he had run more than 100 under-four-minute miles.

The strength and depth of New Zealand running at this time was well demonstrated when the New Zealand men’s team won the 1975 world cross-country championships in Morocco.

Women distance runners

By the 1970s women were finally winning the right to compete in track and road distance races. New Zealand women were among the first to excel over the new events. Their depth was also shown when they came a close second at the world cross-country championships in 1975, and in several other good team placings.

Lorraine Moller, Anne Audain and Allison Roe were among the most successful. Moller ran her first marathon in America in 1979 and for the next 15 years she remained one of the world’s best marathon runners, with several major wins and a bronze at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.

The end of amateurism

By the 1980s the old ideals of amateurism were a joke to many, and under-the-table payments to elite athletes were the norm. The end came in 1981 when a group of leading runners, including New Zealand’s Anne Audain, Lorraine Moller and Allison Roe, agreed to openly accept prize money in a US road race. At first the offending athletes were banned, but they just kept running on the new professional circuit. The International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) and NZAAA soon gave in and the athletes were reinstated.

Some of Audain’s greatest successes came in the early 1980s on the lucrative US road-racing circuit, but she also excelled on the track. In early 1982 she broke the world 5,000 metres record in Auckland at Mt Smart Stadium, and later that year she ran a gutsy front-running race to win the 3,000 metres at the Brisbane Commonwealth Games. Before injury cut short her career Roe won the 1981 Boston and New York marathons.

How to cite this page:

David Colquhoun, 'Athletics - The golden era continues, 1970 to 1990', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/athletics/page-6 (accessed 24 June 2018)

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