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Olympic and Commonwealth games

by Joseph Romanos

New Zealand has a long history of participation at Olympic and Commonwealth games. For a small country it has achieved great success in high-profile sports, including athletics, rowing, sailing and cycling. In the Commonwealth Games New Zealand has also had success in lower-profile sports such as shooting and weightlifting.

The early days of the Olympics

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.

    • David Colquhoun, ed. As if running on air: the journals of Jack Lovelock. Nelson: Craig Potton, 2008, p. 210. Back

Athletic achievements at the Olympics – 1950s and early 1960s

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.

    • Joseph Romanos, Our Olympic century. Wellington: Trio Books, 2008, p. 93. Back

Rowing, athletics and hockey – late 1960s and 1970s at the Olympics

New Zealand rowing’s first golden era

What is seen as the first golden era of New Zealand Olympic rowing, from 1968 to 1976, coincided with the coaching reign of Rusty Robertson.

Anthems at the Olympics

Until the 1972 Montreal Olympics the national anthem that was officially played for New Zealanders at Olympic medal ceremonies was ‘God save the Queen (or King)’. Only at Empire and Commonwealth Games was ‘God defend New Zealand’ played. The 1972 medal ceremony for the rowing eight was notable for being the first time ‘God defend New Zealand’ was played instead of ‘God save the Queen’. ‘God defend New Zealand’ had, however, been played once before at the Olympics. At Yvette Williams’s medal ceremony at Helsinki in 1952, the Finnish band played it as well as ‘God save the Queen’.

The New Zealand eight were gold-medal favourites at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics but, suffering from lack of oxygen in the high-altitude environment, they only managed fourth place. However, New Zealand still had a finals day to remember when the coxed four, Warren Cole, Ross Collinge, Dudley Storey, Dick Joyce and Simon Dickie (cox), won gold.

At the 1972 Munich Olympics the New Zealand eight dominated the final race. Gary Robertson, Trevor Coker, Athol Earl, Lindsay Wilson, John Hunter, Dick Joyce, Wybo Veldman, Tony Hurt and Simon Dickie won gold comfortably.

The New Zealand coxless four of Noel Mills, Ross Collinge, Dudley Storey and Dick Tonks won silver on the same day, pushing the champion East German crew all the way in the final.

By the 1976 Montreal Olympics the Rusty Robertson era was winding down, but the New Zealand rowing eight were still good enough to grab the bronze medal behind East Germany and Britain.

Team size and travel methods

In the earliest years of the Olympics, sea travel was the only option, and the expense and length of travel time restricted New Zealand’s team sizes. Twenty-one New Zealand athletes made the 17-day voyage to California for the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics. Fifty-three voyaged the much shorter distance across the Tasman to the 1956 Melbourne Olympics. The first time a New Zealand Olympic team travelled by air was in 1952, when 15 New Zealand athletes flew to Helsinki, their journey taking a week in short stages. From the 1960s cheaper and faster air travel allowed larger teams. Thirty-seven New Zealanders went to the 1960 Rome Olympics, and at Munich in 1972, New Zealand fielded a team of 97.

Hockey’s great day

At the 1976 Montreal Olympics the New Zealand men’s hockey squad won a surprise gold medal. The New Zealanders survived two extra-time thrillers against Spain and the Netherlands to qualify for the final against Australia.

With 13 minutes remaining in the final, New Zealand goalie Trevor Manning saved a powerful shot by Australian Ian Cook. The ball hit Manning in an unprotected spot just above his leg guard’s knee roll. Despite the pain Manning played on, later discovering he had a broken kneecap. New Zealand, up 1–0 by virtue of a Tony Ineson goal, hung on to win a famous victory.

A trio of running greats

In the 1970s New Zealand had three great Olympic middle- and long-distance track runners: John Walker, Dick Quax and Rod Dixon.

Dixon was the first to win an Olympic medal with a bronze in the 1,500 metres at Munich in 1972.

At the 1976 Montreal Olympics, Quax and Dixon ran longer distances. In the 5,000-metres final, defending champion Lasse Viren of Finland was too good, with Quax a pace away in second place. Dixon looked to have secured third place until Klaus-Peter Hildenbrand of West Germany dived at the line and deprived him of the bronze.

With world-record holder Filbert Bayi of Tanzania unable to compete, John Walker won the gold medal, running as the red-hot favourite.

Olympic politics and boycotts

Despite the Olympic ideals of amateurism and setting aside differences, politics have often impacted on the games, while host nations have always used the Olympics to showcase their countries. The 1936 Berlin Olympics were particularly controversial as they were used as a propaganda vehicle for the Nazi regime in Germany.

Mexico and Munich

The 1968 Mexico City Olympics began under a cloud. Only 10 days before the Olympics started, security forces in Mexico City shot and killed over 40 anti-government protesters in what became known as the Tlatelolco massacre. Nonetheless the International Olympic Committee (IOC) decided the Olympics would go ahead.

Further controversy occurred against the backdrop of the civil rights movement when, while the ‘Star-spangled banner’ played, African-American athletes Tommie Smith (gold medallist) and John Carlos (bronze medallist) gave black-power salutes from the podium with the quiet support of Australian silver-medallist Peter Norman.

The Munich hostage drama

New Zealand runner Rod Dixon described hearing shots at night: ‘We joked that maybe their [the Israeli] smallbore shooters were practising against a wall, and then we went to sleep. We didn’t hear any more until there was banging on our door. The police asked us to evacuate … we went to our balcony and could see the hooded terrorists standing watch only 50 metres away.’1

The 1972 Munich Olympics were overshadowed by the massacre of 11 Israeli athletes taken hostage by Palestinian terrorists. From then on security became a major consideration at the Olympics.

The New Zealand controversy

At the 1976 Montreal Olympics New Zealand sparked a boycott. The African nations were angry that a New Zealand All Blacks rugby team was touring apartheid-era South Africa. The Africans wanted New Zealand banned from the Montreal Olympics.

Eventually 26 African countries, as well as Iraq and Guyana, boycotted Montreal over New Zealand’s rugby activities. The boycott had a significant effect in athletics, as Africans were among the world's best at middle- and long-distance running.

An athlete’s reaction to the 1980 boycott

On learning of the boycott of the Moscow games Gary Hurring, a member of the New Zealand swimming team, said, ‘I was in shock. As a young adult I didn’t really understand what was going on. All I realised was that I’d been training harder than ever before and that I was building to my peak, and then the whole thing crashed down around me with one phone call in the evening.’2

Cold-war rivalry – the Moscow and Los Angeles boycotts

In 1980 US President Jimmy Carter called for a western-nations boycott of the Moscow Olympics to protest against the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan. Eventually 65 countries declined invitations to compete at Moscow. Other teams, including those from Britain and Australia, were seriously depleted.

The New Zealand government strongly discouraged athletes from attending the Moscow Olympics but did not prevent them from going. In the end only four New Zealand athletes from the original team of 100 competed: modern pentathlete Brian Newth and canoeists Ian Ferguson, Alan Thompson and Geoff Walker.

There was an answering boycott in 1984, with most of the communist nations (except Romania, Yugoslavia and China) boycotting the Los Angeles Olympics. It meant that the New Zealand canoeists, who won four gold medals at Los Angeles, were unable to compete against their keenest rivals, the East Germans.

  1. Joseph Romanos, Our Olympic century. Wellington: Trio Books, 2008, p. 134. Back
  2. Our Olympic century, p. 152. Back

On the water – the 1980s at the Olympics

Success in sailing

New Zealand had competed for the first time in Olympic sailing in 1956. Jack Cropp and Peter Mander had immediate success, winning gold in the Sharpie class. At Tokyo in 1964 Helmer Pedersen and Earle Wells dominated the Flying Dutchman category, gaining another sailing gold for New Zealand.

In the 1980s New Zealand sailors began to achieve further Olympic success. Russell Coutts won gold in the Finn class at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. He risked disqualification after the final race because his wet gear weighed more than the allowable 20 kilograms. However, the gear was dried out and re-weighed, coming in just under the limit. Coutts went on to become one of the finest sailors in America’s Cup history.

Boardsailor Bruce Kendall picked up a bronze medal at the 1984 games, followed by a gold at Seoul in 1988. At the 1992 Barcelona Olympics Barbara Kendall, Bruce’s younger sister, struck gold in the women’s boardsailing – the first time it had been contested at Olympic level. Barbara went on to win silver in 1996 and bronze in 2000. The Kendalls continued to make a huge contribution to New Zealand’s Olympic campaigns, Bruce as an Olympic yachting coach, and Barbara as an International Olympic Committee (IOC) member.

During and after the 1980s New Zealand had many other Olympic successes in sailing:

  • Rex Sellers and Chris Timms won gold in 1984 and silver in 1988 in the Tornado class.
  • John Cutler won the Finn bronze in 1988.
  • Jan Shearer and Lesley Egnot won the 470 silver in 1992.
  • Don Cowie and Rod Davis won the Star silver medal in 1992.
  • Craig Monk won the Finn class bronze in 1992.
  • Aaron McIntosh won the boardsailing bronze in 2000.
  • Tom Ashley won the boardsailing gold in 2008.

The canoeing era

In the early 1980s canoeing was a little-known sport in New Zealand, with fewer than 50 competitive canoeists. This changed dramatically after the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics when New Zealand canoeists won four gold medals. Ian Ferguson won the K1 500; Alan Thompson won the K1 1000; Ferguson and Paul MacDonald won together in the K2 500; and Ferguson, MacDonald, Thompson and Grant Bramwell crewed the K4 1000 to victory.

The New Zealand canoeists were dedicated and independent-minded athletes. Three had attended the 1980 Moscow Olympics, defying the government-backed boycott, and at Los Angeles the team members, rather than the team manager or the coaches, decided who would compete in each event.

At the 1988 Seoul Olympics, Ferguson and MacDonald won gold in the K2 500. They were silver medallists in the K2 1000, while MacDonald picked up a bronze in the K1 500.

Boxing controversy

At Los Angeles in 1984 American boxer Evander Holyfield was controversially eliminated in his light-heavyweight bout with New Zealander Kevin Barry. At the end of the second round, Holyfield floored Barry just after the referee had called ‘Stop’. The referee counted out Barry, but disqualified Holyfield for hitting after the break. The crowd, who felt Holyfield deserved the win, reacted so strongly that police had to escort the boxers and referee from the ring.

As a knockout victim Barry could not fight again for 28 days, so the gold medal went automatically to Yugoslav Anton Josipovic, the winner of the other semi-final. Barry took the silver. Holyfield and Algerian Mustapha Moussa shared bronze.

Barry turned to training and persuaded young heavyweight David Tua, a bronze medallist at the 1992 Olympics, to turn professional. Barry guided Tua all the way to a shot at the world heavyweight title against Lennox Lewis in 2000.

Drugs at the Olympics

The East Germans who dominated the female swimming events at Montreal in 1976 were later revealed to have been using illegal performance-enhancing anabolic steroids. Rebecca Perrott, the New Zealand swimmer who came fourth in the 400 metres at Montreal, commented, ‘The East Germans were much bigger and musclier than the other women and some of them had deep voices. I remember being in the changing room and hearing these voices behind me and thinking I might have gone into the men’s changing room by mistake.’1

Swimming successes

Before the 1980s the only two Olympic swimming medals won by New Zealanders were Malcolm Champion’s gold in the relay in 1912 (for Australasia) and Jean Stewart’s 1952 bronze in the 100-metre backstroke.

At the 1988 Seoul Olympics things began to change. Paul Kingsman picked up bronze in the 200-metre backstroke, with only 0.04 seconds to spare. Fellow Auckland swimmer Anthony Mosse won bronze in the 200-metre butterfly, despite a distressing lead-up. His father had died not long before the games, and on the eve of the Olympics, Mosse’s coach, Paul Bergen, walked out on him.

At the 1992 Barcelona Olympics Danyon Loader, coached by the renowned Duncan Laing, won silver in the 200-metre butterfly. Four years later, in Atlanta, Loader was one of the superstars of the Olympics, his swimming characterised by sizzling finishes. He won two golds, one each in the 200-metre and 400-metre freestyle.

  1. Joseph Romanos, Our Olympic century. Wellington: Trio Books, 2008, p. 141. Back

Cycling, riding and skiing – 1990s at the Olympics

Equestrian successes

At the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics Mark Todd, riding his horse Charisma, had won the individual gold medal to begin an era of outstanding New Zealand Olympic three-day eventing performances. At Seoul in 1988 Todd and Charisma again took gold in the individual event. They led after the dressage, turned in a faultless cross-country round and knocked down just one fence in the showjumping. Meanwhile, the New Zealand eventing team won bronze.

The Spinning Rhombus debacle

In the team event at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics New Zealand equestrians Blyth Tait, Vicki Latta and Andrew Nicholson looked set for gold (Mark Todd, the fourth team member, had been forced to withdraw after his horse was injured). Nicholson was the last of them to ride. Even if his horse, Spinning Rhombus, knocked down eight fences New Zealand would win. But Spinning Rhombus was no showjumper. One rail after another fell. In the end the horse hit nine fences and New Zealand lost the gold to Australia.

In the fierce summer heat of the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, the New Zealand squad continued to shine. Blyth Tait staged a final-day comeback to grab the individual event bronze from team-mate Vicki Latta. In the team event the New Zealanders won silver, narrowly losing gold to Australia.

At the 1996 Atlanta Olympics New Zealand dominated the three-day eventing. Tait won the individual gold medal on Ready Teddy, and Sally Clark, riding Squirrel Hill, took silver. In the team event, Andrew Nicholson, Vaughn Jefferis, Tait and Latta claimed bronze.

This golden era for New Zealand equestrianism closed in 2000 when Todd, riding Eyespy II, grabbed a bronze in the individual event. However, Todd added a fourth Olympic medal, another bronze, to his count when he was part of the third-placed eventing team at the 2012 London Olympics.

The cycling revolution

Gary Anderson won New Zealand’s first Olympic cycling medal with a bronze in the 4,000-metre individual pursuit at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.

Bruce Biddle’s non-medal

In 1972 cyclist Bruce Biddle finished fourth in the Olympic road race at Munich. He was promoted to third when the Spaniard Jaime Huelamo was disqualified after a positive drugs test. However, Biddle hadn’t been drug-tested himself. By the time Huelamo had been disqualified, it was too late, so Biddle was never awarded the bronze medal.

At the 2000 Sydney Olympics cyclist Sarah Ulmer, who was not in the best of health, narrowly missed out on bronze in the 3,000-metre individual pursuit. However, she proved herself at Athens in 2004, winning gold in a world-record time of 3 minutes 24.537 seconds. Ulmer’s victory by more than three seconds was remarkable in a sport measured in thousandths of a second.

The Winter Olympics

The Winter Olympics were first held in 1924, but New Zealand did not compete until a group of skiers travelled to Oslo in 1952.

New Zealand made its first impact at Albertville, France, in 1992, when 20-year-old downhill skier Annelise Coberger came a surprise second in the slalom – the first Winter Olympics medal won by a southern-hemisphere athlete. 

In 2018, bronze medals were won at PyeongChang, South Korea, by Zoi Sadowski-Synnott (women's big air) and Nico Porteous (men's freeski halfpipe). The two 16-year-olds became New Zealand's youngest Olympic medallists.

In 2022, Sadowski-Synnott won New Zealand’s first Winter Olympics gold medal at Beijing, soaring to near-perfection in the last run of the women’s snowboard slopestyle final. She also came second in the big air, while Porteous won the freeski halfpipe.

The early 21st century at the Olympics

Triathlon triumphs

Triathlon was introduced to the Olympics at Sydney in 2000. New Zealander Hamish Carter won the men’s event at the 2004 Athens Olympics and compatriot Bevan Docherty came second.

Docherty maintained New Zealand’s fine triathlon reputation at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, claiming bronze.

Rowing’s second golden era

In the 2000s New Zealand rowing entered a new golden era. The team’s success sprang from the coaching of Dick Tonks and intense training at the squad’s base on Lake Karāpiro.

Single sculler Rob Waddell was the first to hit the jackpot with an Olympic gold in Sydney in 2000. The Evers-Swindell twins, Caroline and Georgina, won gold in the double sculls in 2004 and again in 2008.

At the 2008 Beijing Olympics there were bronze medals for single sculler Mahé Drysdale and coxless pair Nathan Twaddle and George Bridgewater.

New Zealand rowers triumphed at the 2012 London Olympics. Nathan Cohen and Joseph Sullivan won New Zealand’s first gold medal at the games in the double sculls. The next day Hamish Bond and Eric Murray won gold in the men’s pair, followed within 45 minutes by Mahé Drysdale’s victory in the single sculls.

Juliette Haigh and Rebecca Scown had earlier secured a bronze in the women’s pair. The rowing medal tally was capped by bronzes for Storm Uru and Peter Taylor in the men’s lightweight double sculls.

‘Super Saturday’

New Zealand won five medals at the 2008 Beijing Olympics on 16 August, which journalists dubbed ‘Super Saturday’. Georgina and Caroline Evers-Swindell defended their double sculls title, winning by just 0.01 seconds. Single sculler Mahé Drysdale, battling a debilitating virus, won bronze, and Nathan Twaddle and George Bridgewater won bronze in the coxless pair. Cyclist Hayden Roulston won silver in the individual pursuit, and Valerie Vili (later Adams) won gold in the shot put with a throw of 20.56 metres.

Beijing, 2008

Beijing provided New Zealand with one of its better Olympic medal hauls. As well as the victories in triathlon and rowing, Valerie Vili (later Adams) won gold in the shot put and Tom Ashley claimed New Zealand’s third gold medal of the games in the men’s sailboard.

Cyclists Sam Bewley, Hayden Roulston, Marc Ryan and Jesse Sergent won bronze in the team pursuit. Roulston made it a double with a silver in the individual pursuit.

Runner Nick Willis continued New Zealand’s 1,500-metres tradition by winning bronze. Following the December 2009 disqualification of Bahraini gold medallist Rashid Ramzi after a positive drugs test, Willis’s medal was upgraded to silver.

Silver turns to gold

Shot putter Valerie Adams defended her Olympic title at London but faced outstanding throwing by her rival, Nadzeya Astapchuk from Belarus. Adams’s best throw of 20.70 metres could not match Astapchuk, whose four throws over 21 metres included a best of 21.36 metres. But Astapchuk subsequently tested positive for the performance-enhancing steroid metenolone. The Belarusian was disqualified and Adams was awarded her second Olympic shot-put gold.

London calling – the 2012 Olympics

New Zealand won six gold medals at the 2012 London Olympics, its highest tally since 1984. In addition to the rowers’ three golds, Lisa Carrington became the first New Zealand woman to win an Olympic kayaking gold medal, in the K1 200 metres; Jo Aleh and Olivia Powrie won the 470-class sailing competition; and Valerie Adams was awarded shot-put gold after the disqualification of Belarusian athlete Nadzeya Astapchuk.

Sarah Walker won silver in the women’s BMX cycling, while Peter Burling and Blair Tuke added to the sailing medals with silver in the men’s 49er class.

New Zealand’s first medal at London was a bronze in the equestrian three-day event for Andrew Nicholson, Jock Paget, Caroline Powell, Jonelle Richards and Mark Todd. New Zealand cyclists won two more bronze medals: Sam Bewley, Aaron Gate, Westley Gough, Marc Ryan and Jesse Sergent came third in the men’s team pursuit, while Simon van Velthooven was third in the men’s keirin.

Rio de Janeiro, 2016

New Zealand ended the Rio games with a then-record total of 18 medals, including 10 across rowing, sailing and canoeing. Mahé Drysdale, Lisa Carrington, and the team of Hamish Bond and Eric Murray all successfully defended their Olympic titles. Carrington also came third in the K1 500m, becoming the first New Zealand woman to win two medals at the same games.

New Zealand continued its Olympic success in athletics with Valerie Adams and Tom Walsh picking up silver and bronze medals respectively in the shot put, runner Nick Willis a bronze medal in the 1,500 metres, and 19-year-old Eliza McCartney a bronze medal in the pole vault.

New Zealand also won silver medals in rugby sevens and golf – the former introduced as an Olympic sport at Rio and the latter making its first appearance since 1904. The women’s sevens team lost the final against Australia, while Lydia Ko came second in golf. 

Laurel Hubbard

Weightlifter Laurel Hubbard broke new ground in Tokyo as the first transgender athlete to compete at the Olympics, in the women's +87-kilogram category. Transgender athletes have been eligible to compete at the Olympics since 2004. Hubbard’s inclusion was welcomed by many, but attracted criticism from people who claimed she had a biological advantage over her fellow competitors, having gone through puberty as a male.

Tokyo, 2020

The 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics in Tokyo was postponed to 2021 because of the COVID-19 pandemic. A record 222 New Zealand athletes returned with 20 medals (11 won by women) – seven gold, six silver and seven bronze. 

New Zealanders once again excelled on the water, winning nine medals across rowing, sailing and canoeing. Canoeist Lisa Carrington’s three gold medals, including her third consecutive victory in the K‑1 200 metres, made her New Zealand's most successful able-bodied Olympian.

Rowers Grace Prendergast and Kerri Gowler won gold in the coxless pair, and silver as members of the women’s eight. Emma Twigg put the disappointment of two previous fourth-place Olympic finishes behind her by winning the single sculls. Rowing’s status as the country’s most successful Olympic sport was confirmed when the men's eight powered home to win gold for the first time since 1972.

Sailors Peter Burling and Blair Tuke picked up their third consecutive Olympic medal with silver in the 49er class. This rounded off an almost perfect year, as they had earlier helped Team New Zealand retain the America’s Cup.

The Black Ferns women’s rugby sevens team claimed New Zealand’s 50th gold medal of all time. Their male counterparts won silver. Two-time gold medallist Dame Valerie Adams won bronze in the shot put at her fifth and final Olympics. Tom Walsh repeated his 2016 performance with a bronze in the men’s shot put. Lydia Ko became the only golfer possessing two Olympic medals with a third-place finish. Medals were also won in boxing, cycling, tennis, trampolining and triathlon.

The Oly Whites achieved their best-ever result in Olympic men’s football, bowing out in the quarter-finals to the host nation, Japan, in a penalty shoot-out.

The British Empire Games and Commonwealth Games

Empire to Commonwealth

The Commonwealth Games, initially called the British Empire Games, are held every four years. The first British Empire Games took place in 1930 at Hamilton in Ontario, Canada, organised by Canadian Melville Robinson. The games included six sports and drew competitors from 11 countries. By the 2010 Delhi Commonwealth Games 71 countries were represented in 17 sports.

A precursor to the British Empire Games

The 1911 Festival of Empire was held at the Crystal Palace in London to mark the coronation of King George V. As part of the festivities, an inter-empire sports meeting was held. Teams from Great Britain, Canada and Australasia competed. The Australasian team of nine included four New Zealanders. In running Ronald Opie came second in the 220-yards race and third in the 100 yards while Guy Haskins came third in the mile race. In swimming Malcolm Champion led for the first 11 lengths of the mile race, then fell back to third due to a leg cramp.

The political changes from empire to Commonwealth were reflected in the changing names of the games. The British Empire Games (1930–50) became the British Empire and Commonwealth Games (1954–66), the British Commonwealth Games (1970–1974) and, finally, the Commonwealth Games (1978 onward).

Once largely the preserve of the old ‘white’ dominions, the games expanded to embrace a wide range of African, Asian and Caribbean nations.

New Zealand at the British Empire Games, 1930–38

New Zealand has sent teams to all of the British Empire and Commonwealth Games. At Ontario in 1930 New Zealand won three gold, four silver and two bronze medals.

Aucklander Billy Savidan won the 6-mile gold medal. He began sprinting home after being signalled he was on the final lap, but had to run another circuit after being told the laps had been miscounted. Javelin-thrower Stan Lay and the rowing coxed four also won gold.

Allan Elliott’s false starts

At the 1930 Ontario games New Zealand sprinter Allan Elliott was involved in a telling incident in a heat for the 100-yards race. Elliott made two false starts so he was eliminated from the competition. Despite this decision being in accordance with the rules, the crowd thought it unfair. They made so much noise that the officials were unable to restart the race until Elliott was allowed back in. The incident was seen as illustrating the fact that the British Empire Games were more relaxed and enjoyable than the Olympics. Elliott did not make it into the 100-yards final.

At the 1934 British Empire Games in London, Jack Lovelock brought home New Zealand’s only gold medal after winning the mile race. Harold Brainsby won bronze in the triple jump, as did swimmer Noel Crump in the 100-yard freestyle.

New Zealand took five gold medals at the Sydney Empire Games in 1938. Two were in lawn bowls: the pairs and the fours. In athletics Cantabrian Pat Boot easily won the 880-yards race, along with a bronze medal in the mile. Long-distance runner Cecil Matthews was a games star, with gold medals in both the 3-mile and 6-mile races.

New Zealand as the Commonwealth Games host

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.

Commonwealth Games stars

While never showcasing as many superstar athletes as the Olympics, the British Empire and Commonwealth Games have produced outstanding moments in New Zealand sport. Athletics has often received the most attention at the games, but New Zealanders have consistently won medals in sports with a lower profile, such as shooting and bowls. Since 1962, disabled athletes have taken part in Commonwealth Games, and since 2002 they have been full members of national teams. 

Olympic and Commonwealth gold medallists

Yvette Williams, Olympic long-jump gold medallist at Helsinki in 1952, was also a multiple medallist at the Commonwealth Games. She won gold in the long jump and silver in the javelin at the Auckland Commonwealth Games in 1950, and followed this up with golds for long jump, discus and shot put at Vancouver in 1954. Other New Zealand Olympic champions who have won gold at the Commonweath Games include Jack Lovelock, Murray Halberg, Peter Snell, Danyon Loader, Sarah Ulmer and Valerie Adams.


Field events star Valerie Young (née Sloper) and squash player Joelle King have won the most Empire and Commonwealth Games gold medals of any New Zealander. At the 1958 British Empire and Commonwealth Games in Cardiff, Young won a shot put gold and a discus bronze. She followed with golds for both shot put and discus at Perth, Australia, in 1962, then repeated this feat at Kingston, Jamaica, in 1966. In 1974 she emerged from retirement to win a silver medal in the shot put at Christchurch.

Pompey Heremaia won two gold medals in the Perth Commonwealth Paraplegic Games in 1962, in javelin and snooker. At the 1966 games at Kingston, Jamaica, Peter Welsh had a memorable victory in the 3,000-metre steeplechase. A rank outsider, he won by about 18 metres, with a time just 0.6 of a second outside the world record.

At Brisbane in 1982 Anne Audain led the field throughout the 3,000-metre race and won in Commonwealth record time. Team-mate Lorraine Moller came third.

Discus-thrower Beatrice Faumuina won her first Commonwealth Games medal, a silver, at Victoria, British Columbia (Canada), in 1994. She went on to win gold in discus at Kuala Lumpur in 1998 and again at Manchester in 2002.

Shot-putter Valerie Adams won silver at Manchester in 2002 and on the Gold Coast in 2018. In between she won gold at Melbourne in 2006, Delhi in 2010 and Glasgow in 2014.

Precious McKenzie

The great crowd-pleaser at the 1974 Christchurch games was weightlifter Precious McKenzie, who won gold for England. McKenzie had moved to England because he was unable to represent his birth country, South Africa, being designated ‘coloured’. McKenzie went on to immigrate to New Zealand, and won a gold medal for his newest country at the 1978 Commonwealth Games in Edmonton, Alberta (Canada).


New Zealand weightlifting achieved prominence in the 1974 Christchurch games, where seven medals were won by nine lifters. The team coach, Don Oliver, had earlier achieved fame as a heavyweight lifter, winning the silver medal at Perth in 1962 and gold at Kingston in 1966.

At the 1974 games in Christchurch, New Zealand super-heavyweight weightlifter Graham May won gold. A lift in the lead-up to his winning effort provided a famous moment of television footage when he staggered across the platform and fell forward, all but dropping the bar on Princess Anne in the front row of the audience.

At Kuala Lumpur in 1998, Darren Liddel won three gold medals, and Nigel Avery won two bronzes. Avery went on to win two golds and a silver at the Manchester games in 2002.


Some of New Zealand’s most prolific medallists have been shooters. Greg Yelavich won a total of 12 Commonwealth Games medals – more than any other New Zealander. At Edinburgh in 1986 he won two golds and a bronze. Over the course of the next six Commonwealth Games, he won five silvers and another four bronzes. Rifle-shooter Stephen Petterson also chalked up an impressive record, winning gold and silver medals at Auckland in 1990, two golds at Victoria in 1994 and a fourth gold at Kuala Lumpur in 1998.

Lawn bowls

New Zealand has participated in lawn bowls since its inclusion in the Hamilton games of 1930. Women’s bowls has only been included in the games since 1982. By 2022 New Zealand bowlers had won 13 gold, 11 silver and 16 bronze medals.


At the 1982 Commonwealth Games in Brisbane, Australia, New Zealand paraplegic archer Neroli Fairhall created history not only by being the first paraplegic athlete to compete at a Commonwealth Games against able-bodied athletes, but by becoming the first to win a gold medal. She went on to become the first paraplegic athlete to compete in the Olympic Games.

Squash and table tennis

Squash player Leilani Rorani won gold medals at the 2002 Commonwealth Games in Manchester, England, for the doubles and the mixed doubles. By 2022, Joelle King had won five gold, one silver and two bronze medals at four Commonwealth Games, making her New Zealand's most successful female competitor at the Commonwealth Games.

Also at Manchester, table-tennis player Li Chunli won a gold, a silver and two bronzes.

Rugby sevens and netball

Team sports have been introduced into the Commonwealth Games. The New Zealand men's sevens rugby team, coached by Gordon Tietjens, won the first four Commonwealth Games tournaments, but came second in 2014. Now coached by Clark Laidlaw, they won a fifth title in 2018 and came third in 2022. The Black Ferns were victorious when women's sevens debuted at the Commonwealth Games in 2018. They won the bronze medal in 2022.

Netball was included in the Commonwealth Games in 1998, and the competition has been largely a continuation of the rivalry between the two top teams in the world, New Zealand and Australia, which contested all the Commonwealth Games finals until 2014. Australia was the victor in the first two clashes, including the 2002 game, which went into double extra-time. New Zealand won gold in 2006 and again in 2010 – another double extra-time thriller. Australia regained the ascendancy in 2014, but was beaten by one goal by England in 2018, when the Silver Ferns finished fourth. They finished third in 2022.


New Zealand's road and track cyclists topped the medal table at the 1990 Commonwealth Games with 12 medals, six of them gold. At Glasgow in 2014, with mountain biking now part of the cycling programme, they won 15 medals, including six golds. In 2018 New Zealand's cyclists won 17 medals, three of them gold. At Birmingham in 2022, the cyclists were again the stars, with 17 medals in all, 10 of them gold, across road, track, time trial and mountain biking events. Aaron Gate won three gold medals in the velodrome, and then went on to win the gruelling road race. 


New Zealand's star Para swimmer, Sophie Pascoe, has won five gold medals at Commonwealth Games, two in both 2014 and 2018 and one in 2022. New Zealand had its most successful Commonwealth Games swimming campaign at Birmingham in 2022, with nine medals, five of which were gold. 

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How to cite this page: Joseph Romanos, 'Olympic and Commonwealth games', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 19 June 2024)

He kōrero nā Joseph Romanos, i tāngia i te 5 o Hepetema 2013, updated 1 o Hune 2023