Kōrero: Sport and the nation

Whārangi 5. Sport and national debate, 1970 to 1990

Ngā whakaahua me ngā rauemi katoa o tēnei kōrero


In 1960 television began in New Zealand, but it was not until the early 1970s that live television coverage of sporting events, both at home and, increasingly, from overseas, became common. This made the dramas of sporting successes and failures more intense.

Distance runners again

A famous television moment that enthralled New Zealanders was Dick Tayler raising his arms in triumph after winning the 10,000 metres on the opening day of the 1974 Christchurch Commonwealth Games. His success helped revive New Zealand’s distance-running tradition. Dick Quax, Rod Dixon and, pre-eminently, John Walker suggested that the legacy of Jack Lovelock and Peter Snell lived on. Walker broke the world mile (1,600-metres) record in 1975 and won the gold medal for the 1,500 metres at the 1976 Montreal Olympics.

Sport and race

However, the 1976 Olympics were not a happy time for New Zealanders. In 1970 the All Blacks had resumed playing against South Africa when that country had allowed non-white players to tour. However, some players refused to play against apartheid South Africa; and a well-organised protest movement emerged seeking to halt sporting contacts with the republic. In 1976, while the Olympics were being held and during the Soweto riots, the All Blacks were again touring South Africa. Most African nations boycotted the Olympics in protest against New Zealand’s presence.

Bugger rugger

Many New Zealanders saw the 1981 Springbok tour as an argument about the place of rugby in the country’s identity. A 30-year-old mother wrote: ‘I have for years resented the dominance that rugby has in the homes, schools and society in general. It’s time that a few other values took over from bloody rugby.’ A 28-year-old said: ‘I disliked the macho aspect of rugby and resent the way it has dominated New Zealand culture. I was brought up in North Canterbury (Alec Wyllie country) and I detest the way rugby males relate to women.’ ‘Bugger rugger,’ wrote another. 1

Sport was becoming a cause for national embarrassment, and a fierce debate broke out which reached a peak during the 1981 Springbok tour of New Zealand. For some, rugby was the heart of New Zealand’s identity as a country of strong outdoor men. The contests with South Africa were central to this tradition and world view. Others argued that New Zealand had an identity as an opponent of racism and a fighter for human rights. Sport must accord with these values. For 56 days in the winter of 1981 New Zealanders argued with other New Zealanders about their national identity in the nation’s closest approach to civil war since the 1860s.

Rugby’s dominance reduced?

The argument had other consequences. In 1981 and 1982 many sporting Kiwis with a conscience shifted their interests to the ‘round game’ and followed the long journey of the New Zealand football team, the All Whites, to the world cup. And New Zealand women began to challenge the dominance of male sports in the media and in the national psychology.

Rugby administrators realised they had to respond to the crisis. The result was the organisation of the first Rugby World Cup, in New Zealand and Australia, in 1987 when the All Blacks restored some national pride by winning the inaugural Webb Ellis Cup.


During these years the New Zealand cricket team gained in international respect and won new local followers. In the 1970s they defeated both England and Australia in tests for the first time, and in the 1980s they won series against Australia, England and the West Indies. Players such as Richard Hadlee and Martin Crowe became household names.

Other sports reach the limelight

There were also successes which brought national attention to lesser-known sports:

  • At the 1972 Olympics the rowing eight won the gold medal and, for the first time, at the medal ceremony ‘God defend New Zealand’ was played instead of ‘God save the queen’.
  • The 1984 Los Angeles Olympics saw the small canoeing team win four gold medals.
  • Another minority sport, equestrianism, brought New Zealand renown when Mark Todd, riding Charisma, won gold medals at both the Los Angeles and Seoul Olympics. Both rider and horse became national heroes.
  • In 1983 New Zealanders followed the fortunes of unseeded (low-ranked) tennis player Chris Lewis overnight on television as he progressed to the final at Wimbledon.
  • From 1984 Susan Devoy dominated women’s squash, winning four world titles and eight British Opens. She became in 1998 the youngest New Zealand woman to become a dame. Also in 1986, Ross Norman won the men’s world squash title.
  • Racehorse Kiwi became a household hero, outside racing circles, when he came from last to win the 1983 Melbourne Cup.
Kupu tāpiri
  1. David Mackay, and others, eds, Counting the cost – the 1981 Springbok tour in Wellington. Wellington: Victoria University History Department, 1982, p. 12. Back
Me pēnei te tohu i te whārangi:

Jock Phillips, 'Sport and the nation - Sport and national debate, 1970 to 1990', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/mi/sport-and-the-nation/page-5 (accessed 16 July 2024)

He kōrero nā Jock Phillips, i tāngia i te 5 Sep 2013