In 1949 the importance of sport to the nation was reflected in the establishment of the New Zealand Sportsman’s Trophy (which after a lapse of two years was re-established in 1963 and renamed the Halberg Awards in 1980).
When Yvette Williams won Olympic gold in the long jump, a haka broke out from groups of New Zealanders in the stadium. Williams remembered: ‘It was the greatest moment of my life … I was very proud to see the New Zealand flag going up’.1 Her father cabled her: ‘Congratulations, Chickie. Wonderful effort. Mighty proud of you. Dad.’2
Despite its masculinist name, the award for the nation’s supreme sporting achievement was won twice by a woman, Yvette Williams, in its first four years. Williams was the first woman to capture the country’s sporting imagination. In 1950 she won the long jump at the Auckland Empire Games. At the 1952 Helsinki Olympic Games she came close to being eliminated through no-jumps, but went on to win gold with an Olympic record. In 1954 she broke the world record for the long jump and later that year won three gold medals at the Vancouver Empire Games.
Outdoor male heroes
It was not long before New Zealand men restored the sense of a male national identity based on outdoor strength. First, in January 1953, Godfrey Bowen broke a world record by shearing 456 sheep in front of 2,000 spectators at Ōpiki in Manawatū.
Five months later Edmund Hillary became the supreme personification of New Zealand identity when he climbed Mt Everest, the world’s highest mountain, with the Sherpa Tenzing Norgay, albeit as part of a British expedition. Hillary was immediately knighted and, later, his face was placed on the $5 note.
Arguably the most intense expression of nationalism through muscular male achievement came with the Springbok rugby tour of 1956. There was huge public interest in the attempt by the All Blacks at home to restore their dominance in the code after defeats by the South African team in 1937 and 1949. More than 60,000 people watched them win the last test, others were glued to their radios, and the headlines in the newspapers used similar-sized headings to those used for the outbreak of the Second World War.
In 1960 came another triumph which captured the nation. In the space of one hour a young 800-metres runner, Peter Snell, and a wily 5,000-metres exponent with a withered arm, Murray Halberg, won gold medals at the Rome Olympics. Snell followed up with world records in the mile (1,600 metres) and 800 metres, and won gold medals in both middle-distance events at the Tokyo Olympics. With coach Arthur Lydiard revolutionising training techniques for distance running, New Zealand briefly became a world leader in those events.
Other significant moments
The 1950s and 1960s saw several other achievements that brought national pride to some New Zealanders:
- After the national humiliation of scoring the world-record low score in one innings (26) in 1955, the New Zealand cricket team finally won a test match (against the West Indies) the next year.
- Left-handed golfer Bob Charles won the 1963 British Open, a ‘major’ tournament.
- Racehorse Cardigan Bay won 80 of 154 races and was the first pacer to win US $1 million. By 1968 he had become a superstar in the United States and was eventually honoured at home with his own postage stamp.
- A trio of fine drivers, Denis Hulme, Bruce McLaren and Chris Amon, were among the world’s best in motor racing, with Hulme winning the Formula One World Championship in 1967.