Story: Athletics

Page 7. Into the 21st century

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End of the golden days

Since the late 1980s New Zealand athletics has struggled to emulate earlier glories. There has been a dramatic decline in numbers of registered athletes – 670 seniors in 2010–11, compared to just under 10,000 in the early 1980s. In the early 2000s there were fewer stars and much less performance depth. There was no longer enough spectator interest to support the string of international track and field meetings that used to be a feature of the New Zealand sporting summer.

Mountain running

Racing up and down mountains has a long tradition in Europe, and since 1985 there has been an annual world competition. New Zealanders have done well. Jonathan Wyatt was men’s champion six times between 1998 and 2008. Melissa Moon won the women’s championship in 2001 and 2003. A particular highlight came in 2005 when the world championships were held on the steep slopes of Wellington’s Mt Victoria. In front of thousands of cheering locals, Wyatt and newcomer Kate McIlroy won the men’s and women’s titles for New Zealand.

New stars

New stars continue to emerge. Nick Willis maintained New Zealand’s middle-distance tradition with his 2006 Melbourne Commonwealth Games gold, 2008 Beijing Olympic silver and 2016 Rio Olympic bronze for the 1,500 metres. New Zealanders Jonathan Wyatt, Melissa Moon and Kate McIlroy have been world champions in mountain running.

Polynesian women have led a revival in the throwing events. First there was Beatrice Faumuina, who won two golds and a silver medal for the discus at the Commonwealth Games. She was also the 1997 world champion. By 2016 the powerful Valerie Adams had established herself as one of the best ever shot putters – winning successive world championships, one silver and three golds at the Commonwealth Games, gold at both the 2008 Beijing and 2012 London Olympics and silver at the 2016 Rio Olympics.

Tom Walsh and Eliza McCartney were New Zealand's emerging stars at the Rio Olympics. Walsh picked up a bronze in the shot put – the first Olympic field medal won by a New Zealand man – while 19-year-old McCartney won a bronze medal in the pole vault. Walsh was world shot put champion in 2017

Athletics lives on

Despite a drop in participation, athletics remained a strong part of New Zealand sport in the 2000s, with the potential for revival. Children’s athletics continues to be popular, and there were impressive participation levels at the annual secondary-school competitions. Many of the best young athletes took up US sporting scholarships, and some used that as a springboard into international competition. Athletics New Zealand restructured domestic athletics, aiming to reinvigorate club athletics and generally make the sport more appealing.

How to cite this page:

David Colquhoun, 'Athletics - Into the 21st century', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/athletics/page-7 (accessed 18 January 2018)

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