Story: Olympic and Commonwealth games

Page 9. New Zealand as the Commonwealth Games host

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The 1950 British Empire Games

New Zealand hosted the fourth British Empire Games at Auckland in 1950. Held in the wake of the Second World War, the 1950 games were seen as strengthening New Zealand’s bonds with the old empire, especially Britain. Twelve countries sent teams, containing a total of 590 athletes. The only countries outside the old ‘white Commonwealth’ to attend were Ceylon, Malaya, Fiji and Nigeria.

The changing Commonwealth

Between the 1950 Empire Games in Auckland and the 1974 Commonwealth Games in Christchurch, the Commonwealth itself had changed markedly. Of the 38 countries at Christchurch, 21 had gained independence after 1950. There were teams from 12 African, six Caribbean, seven Pacific and four Asian nations. Before 1974 the majority of prominent touring international teams had been the mostly white rugby or cricket teams of New Zealand’s traditional sporting rivals, Australia, South Africa, France and the British Isles. The Christchurch Commonwealth Games emphasised New Zealand’s place in a diverse, modern world of many cultures.

At the time it was the biggest international sporting event ever held in New Zealand. After the Second World War there had been doubts over whether the games would resume; there had been a break of 12 years. However, with a total attendance of 264,694 spectators the success of the Auckland games guaranteed the event’s continuance.

Harold Nelson won the 6-mile race on the opening day, although his victory was not accorded the legendary status of Dick Tayler’s victory in 1974. Yvette Williams proved her ability as an all-round athlete, winning the long jump and gaining a silver medal in the javelin. By the end of the games, New Zealand had won 10 gold medals, 22 silver and 22 bronze. At the time it was New Zealand’s best medal effort ever, but spectators didn’t seem to be as interested in supporting local athletes as enjoying the entire spectacle. Once the games were over, the New Zealand public’s sporting focus quickly returned to rugby and cricket.

The 1974 British Commonwealth Games

Held in Christchurch, the 10th British Commonwealth Games were dubbed ‘the friendly games’, and had a relaxed, joyful atmosphere, despite the strong security presence in the wake of the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre.

The 1975 New Zealand games

Following on from the success of the 1974 Commonwealth Games, the first and only New Zealand Games were held in Christchurch in 1975. Competition was open to international athletes who met the Olympic criteria for amateurism.

Dick Quax won the 5,000 metres. John Walker won the 1,500 metres, but was second behind Filbert Bayi in the 800 metres. World records were set by Australian swimmer Stephen Holland in the 800-metre and 1,500-metre freestyle, as well as by Russian weightlifter David Rigert in the light-heavyweight snatch. The games were planned as the first of a regular series, but ended up being the only ones held.

The South African rugby team had been scheduled to tour New Zealand in 1973. If this had gone ahead, the African nations would almost certainly have boycotted the Christchurch games. However, the threat was averted when Prime Minister Norman Kirk called the tour off on the grounds that it would cause too much social upheaval.

The New Zealand public’s enthusiasm for these Commonwealth Games was high from an early stage. The extensive television coverage had the added appeal of newly arrived colour technology. New Zealand athletes had their best games since 1950, winning nine gold, eight silver and 18 bronze medals.

Dick Tayler set the track-and-field programme alight with a breathtaking victory on the first day in the 10,000 metres. Tayler’s victory and his uninhibited joy at winning, accompanied by a roaring crowd, provided a spectacular launch to the games.

The Christchurch 1,500-metres final was one of the great middle-distance contests. Tanzanian Filbert Bayi led for the whole race, setting a world record of 3 minutes 32.16 seconds. New Zealander John Walker finished second, under the previous world-record mark as well. In third and fourth place were Kenyan Ben Jipcho and Walker’s team-mate Rod Dixon. Their times were also amongst the fastest ever.

At the pool Christchurch swimmer Jaynie Parkhouse won the 800-metre freestyle ahead of the three Australian favourites, to the delight of the home crowd. New Zealand gained another swimming gold when Mark Treffers won the 400-metre medley.

The 1990 Commonwealth Games

In 1990 New Zealand once again hosted the Commonwealth Games, in Auckland. The games were part of the sesquicentennial celebrations, marking 150 years since the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi. The spectacular opening ceremony emphasised Māori heritage, including the arrival of Polynesian ancestors in New Zealand. These games provided New Zealand’s best-yet medal haul with 17 gold, 14 silver and 27 bronze medals.

Stand-out performances for New Zealand included high-jumper Tania Murray winning a long, seesawing contest with Janet Boyle of Northern Ireland.

Auckland swimmer Anthony Mosse ended a great career by retaining the 200-metre butterfly title he had won at Edinburgh in 1986, while Cantabrian Anna Simcic signalled her emergence by winning the 200-metre backstroke.

New Zealand cyclists won six gold medals. On the track, the pursuit team was victorious. Team member Gary Anderson also won the men’s individual pursuit and the 10-mile scratch race, and Madonna Harris won the women’s individual pursuit. On the road, Graeme Miller outsprinted his keen local rival Brian Fowler to win the individual title. Both men were part of the winning time-trial team.

Nikki Jenkins, 14 years old, took first place on the vault to win New Zealand’s first-ever gymnastics medal in an international competition, as well as to become New Zealand’s youngest-ever Olympic or Commonwealth gold-medallist. Angela Walker made it a New Zealand gymnastics double, winning the rope event as well as picking up three bronzes in the rhythmic section.

How to cite this page:

Joseph Romanos, 'Olympic and Commonwealth games - New Zealand as the Commonwealth Games host', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/olympic-and-commonwealth-games/page-9 (accessed 17 November 2018)

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