Story: Olympic and Commonwealth games

Page 2. Athletic achievements at the Olympics – 1950s and early 1960s

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Yvette Williams – the first woman medallist

At the 1952 Helsinki Olympics Yvette Williams became the first New Zealand woman to win an Olympic medal – a gold in the long jump. She won with a leap of 6.24 metres. Her first two efforts were no-jumps. She qualified for the top six with her third jump and nailed the gold medal with her fourth.

Local media and the Olympics

In the early years Olympic results were confined to newspaper reports. New Zealander Harry Kerr’s 1908 bronze medal received only a brief mention in the local press. In 1952 news of Yvette Williams’s progress in the long jump was broadcast around New Zealand by amateur radio operators listening to short-wave broadcasts from overseas. At the 1956 Melbourne Olympics the New Zealand Broadcasting Service sent a radio team to cover the event for the first time, although the small crew was stretched to the limit. New Zealand’s first live television coverage of the Olympics was broadcast by TVNZ from Montreal in 1976.

At the same games she finished sixth in the shot put and 10th in the discus. New Zealander John Holland won bronze in the 400-metre hurdles, while Jean Stewart (later Hurring) won bronze in the 100-metre backstroke.

Double gold

At the 1956 Melbourne Olympics the New Zealand team earned gold medals in two events for the first time. Sailors Jack Cropp and Peter Mander won gold in the Sharpie class. The other gold medallist was 50-kilometre walker Norman Read, an English immigrant who had arrived in New Zealand in 1953. Read almost missed his race after getting lost in the corridors of the Melbourne stadium.

The Arthur Lydiard years

At the 1960 Rome Olympics New Zealand triumphed through the efforts of runners trained by the coach Arthur Lydiard.

Running blind

Peter Snell described winning at Rome: ‘I saw the white tape in front of me and thrust myself at it. I had no idea who’d won. I ran the last half a yard with my eyes shut and Roger [Moens, the Belgian runner] was quite a way away. I turned to Roger a few seconds later and asked who’d won and he replied “You did”.’1

Peter Snell, ranked 26th in the world, sprinted home to pip world-record holder Roger Moens of Belgium for the 800 metres gold medal. An hour later Murray Halberg won gold in the 5,000 metres after making his decisive winning break three laps from home. In the marathon Barry Magee chased home the legendary Abebe Bikila of Ethiopia to claim bronze.

By the 1964 Tokyo Olympics Snell was the world-record holder over 880 yards, 800 metres and the mile. In Tokyo he easily scooped gold in the 800 metres and the 1,500 metres. Another Lydiard-trained athlete, John Davies, won bronze in the 1,500 metres.

Also at Tokyo, Marise Chamberlain, coached by Valdy Briedis, won bronze in the 800 metres. She remained the only New Zealand woman to win an Olympic running medal until 1992, when Lorraine Moller earned bronze in the marathon at Barcelona.

  1. Joseph Romanos, Our Olympic century. Wellington: Trio Books, 2008, p. 93. Back
How to cite this page:

Joseph Romanos, 'Olympic and Commonwealth games - Athletic achievements at the Olympics – 1950s and early 1960s', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 15 June 2024)

Story by Joseph Romanos, published 5 Sep 2013, updated 1 Jun 2023