Athletics is the group of sports that includes organised competitive running, walking, jumping and throwing. Its best-known manifestation is track and field, and it also includes road and cross-country running, race walking, ultra-distance and mountain running.
For the athletics enthusiast nothing can match a good track-and-field meeting: the tactics and last-lap heroics of the distance runners, the explosive power of the sprinters and hurdlers, and the very different combinations of strength, speed and technique that make up the field events. No other sport encompasses such a variety of competitive excitement and skill.
Although the specifics of some have changed over time, for example distances and techniques, the range of track-and-field events have remained basically the same as they were in the early 20th century. The events included in the 2011 World Athletic Championships and 2012 Olympic Games were:
In 1933 Jack Lovelock broke the mile world record: ‘as we came into the straight I pulled myself for a big strain, forced my mind to remember form and style and generally collected myself physically & mentally. Then at last I produced all I had ... It was a tremendous thrill, the sort of thrill that compensates for months of training & toiling – as I drew level with him [US runner Bill Bonthron], then passed him, and finally left him well behind.’1
New Zealand athletics has a long history with many successes. At various times New Zealanders have been the best in the world at discus, sprinting, shot put, long jumping, distance running, cross country, mountain running and race walking. However, it is in middle-distance racing that New Zealand has a particularly proud record. Jack Lovelock, Peter Snell and John Walker all won Olympic gold in the 1,500 metres, and held world records over the 1,500 metres or the mile (1.6 kilometres) – Lovelock held both.
The national body for athletics is Athletics New Zealand. Until 1989 it was known as the New Zealand Amateur Athletic Association. It is affiliated to the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF). Locally, the sport is based on clubs and centres affiliated to Athletics New Zealand and athletes need to be registered with a club if they want to compete in Athletics New Zealand events.
The beginnings of organised athletics in New Zealand in the 1840s lie in what were called ‘rural sports’. These were a popular part of anniversary-day fêtes, and other celebratory occasions in the early European settlements. Foot races were part of the entertainment, usually for a cash prize. Other rural sports included climbing greasy poles and wheelbarrow races.
From the early 1860s, firstly in Otago and then further afield, annual Caledonian Games, celebrating Scots heritage, provided other opportunities for the athletically minded. The games featured field events such as tossing the caber, putting the stone, hammer throwing, vaulting, the standing jump and running high leap, as well as running events.
By then interest in athletics had taken hold in Britain, and it soon spread to New Zealand. As in Britain and elsewhere, the new popularity brought with it a struggle for control of the sport. On one hand were those who welcomed professional opportunities – the chance to earn money through sport. On the other were those, mainly from the colonial middle and upper classes at first, who extolled the new ideology of amateurism.
Joe Scott began winning professional walking races as a 13-year-old boy, and was soon New Zealand’s best endurance walker. His many early triumphs included a ‘championship of the colonies’ 24-hour race on a 22-lap-to-the-mile track in Dunedin’s Garrison Hall in 1879. In 1886 in Australia he defeated the Australian champion William Edwards in a six-day competition. His greatest triumph came in 1888, when he won a 72-hour ‘world championship’ race in London.
Pedestrianism, the name then given to professional running and walking, had become very popular in Britain, America and Australia by the 1860s. There were widely publicised matchups between the best performers, with large amounts gambled on the outcome. A particular interest was in endurance walking, on tiny circuits in smoke-filled halls, with competitors trying to outlast each other over very long distances.
In New Zealand, existing sports days were too infrequent to meet the demand for running and walking races at first. In some places foot races were included at horse race meetings. One-on-one race-offs for large stakes were common. Dunedin endurance walker Joe Scott became New Zealand’s first international sporting star with a series of lucrative victories in New Zealand, Australia and England in the 1870s and 1880s.
The leading citizens of Timaru and the surrounding area were pioneers of New Zealand amateur athletics. They formed the South Canterbury Amateur Athletic Club in 1871. The annual athletic sports were a highlight of the local social calendar, Timaru businesses declared a half-holiday, and a grandstand was built for the ladies. The club was socially exclusive, and for several years a separate South Canterbury Tradesmen’s Amateur Athletic Club ran its own annual sports.
In England the rise of professional, working-class sport was viewed with distaste by the better off. They preferred the ideals of amateurism: amateur sport was seen as morally and physically uplifting, instilling good manly values and untainted by money. By the 1860s amateur athletics was well established in the leading English universities and the first amateur clubs were being formed.
New Zealand soon followed. An amateur athletics sports meeting was held in Dunedin in 1870, and in 1871 leading citizens of Dunedin and Timaru formed New Zealand’s first amateur athletic clubs.
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
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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 2018 the powerful Valerie Adams had established herself as one of the best ever shot putters – winning successive world championships, two silvers 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 and Commonwealth Games champion in 2018.
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.
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Heidenstrom, Peter. Athletes of the century: 100 years of New Zealand track and field. Wellington: GP Publications, 1992.
Palenski, Ron. Athletics New Zealand 1887–2012: celebrating 125 years. Wellington: Athletics New Zealand, 2012.
Romanos, Joseph. Arthur’s boys: the golden era of New Zealand athletics. Auckland: Moa Beckett, 1994.
‘Spiked shoe’ and ‘Days of the “pro” athlete recalled’. NZ Sportsman (December 1946): 31–33.
The national organisation for athletics in New Zealand.
This section of the New Zealand Sports Hall of Fame website lists the athletes who have been inducted.