Story: Olympic and Commonwealth games

Page 1. The early days of the Olympics

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Reviving an ancient tournament

In 1894 the Frenchman Baron Pierre de Coubertin set up the International Olympic Committee (IOC), with the aim of recreating Greece’s ancient Olympic Games as an international event.

The committee had 13 founding members including New Zealander Leonard Cuff, a champion athlete, cricketer, rugby player, golfer and lawn bowler. Cuff had met Coubertin while touring Europe in 1892.

The committee oversaw the first modern, international Olympic Games in Athens, Greece, in 1896. These were modelled on an event held at Olympia, Greece, from the 8th century BC to the 4th century AD, and also drew on recent Greek work to revive the games as a local tournament.

At first the modern Olympic Games were held in summer only, every four years. The Winter Olympics began in 1924. They took place in the same years as the Summer Olympics until the IOC moved them to alternating even-numbered years from 1994 onwards.

The number of Olympic sports – and disciplines within each sport – steadily increased after the event’s inception.

The New Zealand Olympic Committee

The Olympic Council of New Zealand was established in 1911 by the New Zealand Amateur Athletic Association and the Festival Empire Sports Committee. Its main role was to nominate New Zealand athletes to join Australian athletes in representing Australasia at the Olympic Games.

In 1919 the IOC recognised the council as an independent body, separate from Australia’s.

In 1996 the New Zealand Olympic and Commonwealth Games Association (its official title since 1974) became the New Zealand Olympic Committee, responsible for New Zealand’s teams at the Winter and Summer Olympics, the Commonwealth Games, and the Winter and Summer Olympic and Commonwealth Youth Festivals.

1908 and 1912 – Australasians together

Due to the high cost of overseas travel New Zealand didn’t send athletes to the first three Olympic Games: Athens (1896), Paris (1900) and St Louis (1904). Australia competed at all of them.

In 1908 Australia and New Zealand joined forces to enter a 14-strong Australasian team into the London Olympics. The three New Zealanders in the squad were hurdler Henry Murray and walkers Harry Kerr and Albert Rowland. Kerr won bronze in the 3,500-metre track walk.

At the Stockholm Olympics four years later New Zealanders again competed as part of an Australasian team. Swimmer Malcolm Champion became the first New Zealander to win an Olympic gold medal. He was a member of the Australasian 4 x 200-metre relay team, with Australians Harold Hardwick, Cecil Healy and Les Boardman. The team set a world record of 10 minutes 11.6 seconds.

At the same games New Zealand tennis player Anthony Wilding won a bronze medal for Australasia.

Amateurs and professionals

The Olympic Games were originally for amateurs only. In 1902 the New Zealand Amateur Swimming Association suspended New Zealand swimmer Malcolm Champion from amateur competitions for the crime of professionalism – which at that time generally consisted of competing for prize money. After heavy lobbying by the Waitematā swimming club his amateur status was restored in 1907. He went on to win gold at the 1912 Olympics.

The 1908 bronze-medal-winning walker Harry Kerr had been professional around the turn of the century, but regained his amateur status by withdrawing from all competitive sport for two years, from 1905 to 1906.

The first New Zealand team

The First World War put paid to the planned 1916 Olympics. At the 1920 Antwerp Olympics New Zealand and Australia entered separate teams. The two countries continued to do so from then on.

New Zealand’s first team contained four members, including the country’s first woman Olympian, swimmer Violet Walrond. She came fifth in the 100-metre freestyle and seventh in the 300-metre freestyle. Although the entire team did well, the only member to gain a medal was rower Darcy Hadfield, who won bronze in the single sculls.

At the 1924 Paris Olympics New Zealand runner Arthur Porritt won bronze in the 100-metre sprint. He finished behind Englishman Harold Abrahams and American Jackson Scholz, with a time of 10.8 seconds. Porritt went on to manage the 1936 New Zealand Olympic team and later in life was appointed New Zealand’s governor-general.

A first Olympic gold – against the odds

At Amsterdam in 1928 lightweight boxer Ted Morgan won the first gold medal for a New Zealand Olympic team – in the welterweight division. He had gained so much weight on the boat trip across the world that he had to move up a weight. That wasn’t his only challenge. A left-handed boxer, he had dislocated a knuckle in his left hand while training. Nonetheless he won decisively, defeating the Argentinian Paul Landini on points in the final.

Come on Jack!

Jack Lovelock’s victory at the 1936 Berlin Olympics was made famous through the BBC radio commentary by his friend Harold Abrahams. It was not broadcast by New Zealand stations, but many New Zealanders were able to pick it up on short-wave radio. In the final stages of the race they heard: ‘Lovelock leads by three yards. Come on, Cunning- … Cunningham’s fighting hard. Beccali coming up to his shoulder. Lovelock leads! Lovelock! Lovelock! Come on Jack, a hundred yards to go. Come on, Jack! My God, he’s done it. Jack! Come on! Lovelock wins … five yards … six yards … he wins … he’s won … hurrah! ... Lovelock’s passing the tape.’1

The 1930s – rowing and running

At the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics 11 of the 21-member New Zealand Olympic team were rowers. Bob Stiles and Rangi Thompson, both from Christchurch, brought home New Zealand’s only medal of the games, silver in the coxless pairs.

New Zealand’s other medallist in the 1930s was middle-distance runner Jack Lovelock, who won gold in the 1,500 metres at the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

Lovelock ran the race of his life to beat what has been considered one of the greatest 1,500-metres fields ever assembled. It included Americans Glenn Cunningham and Archie San Romani, defending Olympic champion Luigi Beccali of Italy and Englishman Jerry Cornes. Lovelock won in a world-record time of 3 minutes 47.8 seconds, in front of a massed audience that included the German dictator Adolf Hitler.

London, 1948

New Zealand sent a team of seven athletes to the 1948 London Olympics, but they were unable to win any medals.

Footnotes:
  1. David Colquhoun, ed. As if running on air: the journals of Jack Lovelock. Nelson: Craig Potton, 2008, p. 210. Back
How to cite this page:

Joseph Romanos, 'Olympic and Commonwealth games - The early days of the Olympics', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/olympic-and-commonwealth-games/page-1 (accessed 21 August 2017)

Story by Joseph Romanos, published 5 Sep 2013, reviewed & revised 16 Sep 2016