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1974 Christchurch Commonwealth Games

As we gear up for Rugby World Cup fever, Redmer Yska looks back at the most delirious sporting event the country has ever hosted. Can the Cup match those “Friendly Games”?

They were the shining peak of our 70s, the last great postwar party before a brace of oil shocks put the global economy into free-fall. The 1974 Christchurch Commonwealth Games sent Kiwis into a collective rapture that seemed inconceivable by 1990 when Auckland hosted the event.

On January 24, a Thursday, a crowd of 35,000 attended the opening ceremony at the purpose-built Queen Elizabeth II Park. It began with a fanfare by RNZAF trumpeters. The high point was 2500 local primary schoolchildren, wearing hats and plastic capes of red, white and blue, making a “living Games symbol” in the middle of the pitch. Singer Steve Allen and a massed choir sang the Games anthem, Join Together, and the Burt Bacharach hit What the World Needs Now Is Love. The crowd howled with joy.

It was the culmination of years of planning – and pioneering corporate sponsorship. The Bank of New Zealand minted a quarter of a million commemorative dollars and donated all profits from this “gift of the century” to the Games. Leading winemaker McWilliam’s pitched in with special editions of its trendy wines of the day – Bakano, Cresta Dore and Marque Vue. And at a time when New Zealand was still wreathed in tobacco smoke, one cent from every special Philip Morris Gold Medal cigarette packet sold went towards fundraising.

Today, QEII Park is closed indefinitely as a result of the February 22 earthquake. The sponsorship push that looked innovative in 1974 seems laughably amateurish now. Nearly four decades on, the Rugby World Cup is shaping up to be a showcase for global sport at its slickest, bankrolled with a glittering array of commercial sponsors, including BlackBerry, Microsoft and Emirates. It’s a long way from a glass of Cresta Dore. But no matter how much money the World Cup machine makes, it will have to truly excel to match the sheer joy of what happened in Christchurch.

In 1974, some pointed to the balmy weather that hovered over the city; others were convinced it was the quality and breadth of the competition. But over the 10 days that followed, participants and spectators alike seemed intoxicated on the Games’ harmonious spirit. No wonder the British tabloid Daily Mail later carried the banner headline “These Were the Happiest Games of All”.

So, how did a great sweaty clash of spectacle and sporting pride become something almost transcendent, a Woodstock in tracksuits? The ingredient that brought the Games to life, put them into vivid and meaningful relief, was their transmission on newfangled colour tele­vision. The many athletes competing in track, field and pool suddenly came into focus in rainbow hues.

Launched in New Zealand just 10 weeks before the Games opened, colour TV was already the status symbol of the 70s. Cabinet ministers in the new Kirk Government found themselves in hot water in 1973 after a newspaper revealed that they had “voted themselves a set each”.

Queues formed around department store windows in Christchurch and other main centres to view the Games in colour. A more affluent group watched at home on an estimated 12,000 colour sets, many hired or bought specially for the Games. And what could compare with the image of Dick Tayler sprawled on the bright green grass of QEII Park after unexpectedly taking the 10,000m gold medal on that first glorious day?

New (and long overdue) colour technology put a spell on a nation experiencing a national TV network for the first time. Tele-rationing was still a fact of life. In early 1974, a mere 65 hours of TV were screened weekly, with advertising banned on four nights of the week, including Fridays. The Games pushed those hours right out, becoming the New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation’s Great Leap Forward: the biggest undertaking in its history.

A decade or so after broadcasts began in 1960, TV’s colonisation of the nation was nearly complete. By 1973, as the New Zealand Official Yearbook reminded us, a black and white television set dominated the living rooms of 85% of Kiwi households, with nearly 750,000 sets licensed. The love affair with “the box” was well established. On the day of the moon landings in 1969, an estimated one and a half million Kiwis watched film of astronaut Neil Armstrong, relayed by satellite from Australia. The world was shrinking before our eyes.

Another high point of the opening ceremony was a 21-gun salute for the Duke of Edinburgh. It was a noisy reminder that the Games were reinforcing shared loyalties to the good old Commonwealth of Nations. But many New Zealanders knew those links were already unravelling, as Britain prepared to join the Common Market and retreated from centuries as a global military power.

As satellite TV beamed images of New Zealand and its Games of Glory around the world, an independent Kiwi identity seemed to be within reach, an identity no longer tied to the fickle fortunes of Great Britain, no longer in lock step with failed American enterprises like Vietnam.

In the year following its “time for a change” election victory at the end of 1972, the Kirk Government began redefining New Zealand’s relationship with the world. Labour’s foreign policy was to be both independent and founded on moral principles. “From now on, when we have to deal with a new situation, we shall not say, ‘What do the British think about it?’, or ‘What would the Americans want us to do?’” Kirk wrote. “Our starting point will be, ‘What do we think about it?’”

The eyebrows of traditional allies were raised as Kirk stood at Devonport to personally farewell a frigate to Moruroa with a Cabinet minister on board. The aim was to protest against atmospheric French nuclear testing. Kirk recognised China.

He’d risked even greater wrath at home by halting a Springbok tour in April 1973 in the face of threats by African nations to boycott the Christchurch Games. The gamble paid off.

Steve Allen’s Join Together captured the spirit. Its line that “people black and white will come from all parts of the world” underscored the Government’s mission to preserve Commonwealth unity. The song’s credibility was enhanced when the South African apartheid government of the day banned it because of “unsuitable” words such as “freedom, race, creed, peace, war, black and white”.

Christchurch City worked hard to promote the idea of the “Friendly Games”. Local police chief Gideon Tait said he wanted foreign competitors and visitors to get the impression they were visiting “an angelic city”, free of crime and violence. It helped create the free and easy mood of the previous year’s Great Ngarua­wahia Pop Festival, where Split Enz made its debut.

Late-night com­muning between athletes, however, led to complaints that Join Together’s lyric “the Games are for the fostering of peace and love” was being taken too literally. “Team managers of a good many nations have read the riot act to competitors about burning the midnight oil, and women athletes are known to have slipped into their quarters well after Cinderella was due home,” said the Evening Post. “Bishop Julius House, where all women competitors are accommodated, is sited along a most romantic walk where shrubs and trees and foliage grow in a quantity that is both bounteous and yet concealing.”

New Zealanders were already a little tired of the song. Join Together was thrashed in September 1973, and just missed out on reaching No 1 on the New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation’s Pop-o-Meter Top 20. Well-produced Kiwi music was at last finding its own voice. Local musicians were writing and recording their own songs, songs that were striking a chord with a mass local audience.

Pop songs were by no means the only evidence of a flowering Kiwi identity in the early 70s. The first major local drama production, Pukemanu, screened on tele­vision in 1971. Another breakthrough came with the locally made Gregg’s Instant Coffee TV commercial, with its recognisable urban locations, shaggy Maori actors and “different faces, many races, living in the sun” jingle.

The new spirit could even be seen in the ceremonial baton for the Games. Organising chairman Ron Scott showed the delicacy still surrounding national identity as he stressed: “The baton, through its design and indigenous content and the Games symbol it bears, is a striking example of thinking which, if not completely new, is becoming satisfyingly predominant. If the baton symbolises the urge to be distinctively New Zealand, the route it has followed surely establishes that special link with Great Britain and the Crown.”

Events offstage, however, would extinguish the euphoric Games spirit, just as surely as they ended New Zealand’s long postwar economic boom. Two decades of strong growth, low inflation, rising wages and virtually full employment would soon be a memory. The first signs of the coming storm were seen on October 17, 1973, as NZBC engineers readied to introduce limited colour television broadcasting. The 13 main oil-producing nations cut global supplies, causing New Zealand prices to rise overnight by 70%. A world energy crisis was under way.

Our geographical isolation, long supply routes and almost total dependence on imported oil was exposed. Fuel conservation became the new mantra, with populist media campaigns like “I care” launched. The Government set a target of a 5% saving on fuel, as oil companies cut back supplies by the same amount. Ministers agreed to take the bus one day a week rather than use Crown cars. Kirk was photographed walking to work.

Games organisers pressed on, hoping the worst was over. “Gold” sponsor General Motors set aside 169 gas-guzzling Holden Kingswoods, worth $1 million, for the use of national teams. But six weeks before the Games opened, the oil companies announced New Zealand would have to take a 15% cut in oil imports.

Kirk announced a ban on electricity generation from oil-fired power stations, promoted the ideal of car pooling and introduced a 50mph maximum speed limit (metrics had been introduced in 1970, but kilometres were still an alien concept).
But he refused to enforce fuel restrictions over the holiday period. “People have worked hard this year in our country,” he said. “It has been a boom year with record production. They have earned their Christmas.”

On the eve of the Games, another oil shockwave hit, and by the end of 1974 the price of petrol would have more than doubled. The fleet of Kingswoods suddenly seemed a grave indulgence. As a way to conserve fuel, the Government ordered petrol stations and garages to close from noon on Saturdays until 7.00am on Mondays. There was talk of carless days unless more effective voluntary savings were made.

The world was shifting on its axis. As we know, the energy crisis would batter the 70s, ravaging our economy and setting the country on a hard journey towards energy self-sufficiency. Kirk would be dead within nine months; and Rob Muldoon’s National Government would take over the Treasury benches in 1975. High unemployment and soaring inflation would be part of Muldoon’s legacy.

But none of this seemed likely on the sun-splashed playing fields of Christ­church in the summer of 1974. The “Friendly Games” ended as strongly and happily as they had begun, with a memorable race in the 1500m in which long-haired John Walker was just pipped by Tanzanian Filbert Bayi in a world-record time. The euphoria was still evident in the ceremonial closing, as competitors laughed, sang and danced. They circled the stadium arm in arm, riding on pushbikes, sitting in wheelbarrows, some even hanging off the royal car as it took a slow turn around the track.

NB: To see the Games documentary made by the National Film Unit in 1974, visit NZ On Screen.