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Against the odds: New Zealand's greatest sporting achievements

On the rampage: Jonah Lomu. Photo/Getty Images

Defying the odds, overcoming adversity and winning with panache are how sporting legends are made in this country.

In historian James Belich’s 2001 book Paradise Reforged, he wrote, “There are only two spheres in which New Zealand has been a world superpower. One is the export of protein. The other is sport.”

During the Listener’s 80-year existence, New Zealand has changed out of all recognition from being, as Belich put it, “homogeneous, conformist, masculist, egalitarian and monocultural” and “subject to heavy formal and informal regulation”, to ethnically diverse, lightly regulated and largely open-minded. Sport itself has changed as a consequence of that socio-economic transformation and the advent of professionalism and pay television. One thing that has remained constant is this country’s capacity for producing outstanding sportsmen and women and generating memorable sporting moments.

Here are eight examples from the past eight decades, selected on criteria that include athletic achievement, emotional impact and enduring significance. Apologies to those great athletes, from Valerie Adams to Valerie Young, who didn’t make the cut. As always, you can tell the quality of a line-up by those who missed out.

Yvette Williams. Photo/Alexander Turnbull Library
1. Yvette Corlett (née Williams), our first female Olympic gold medallist (long jump, Helsinki, 1952), is one of only five Kiwis to have won Olympic gold and set a world record in track and field athletics. The others are Murray Halberg, Jack Lovelock, Peter Snell and John Walker.

Peter Heidenstrom, the great chronicler of New Zealand athletics, raised eyebrows when he anointed Williams the New Zealand athlete of the century. However, her extraordinary versatility lends credence to this proposition: she won national titles in five different events, holding them for years in some cases, and won gold medals in the long jump, shot put and discus at the 1954 British Empire and Commonwealth Games in Vancouver.

2. On May 29, 1953, Edmund Hillary and Nepalese Sherpa Tenzing Norgay became the first people to climb Mt Everest. In a day and age when climbers queue to scale the world’s highest peak, it could be argued that mountaineering is more recreation than sport, but there was very little recreation to be had in the Himalayas in 1953. Besides, in a day and age when synchronised swimming is an Olympic sport, the distinction seems entirely academic. That same day, Hillary encapsulated Kiwi sporting endeavour in one of the great sporting quotes: “We knocked the bastard off.”
Peter Snell claims gold in the 1500m at the 1964 Olympics. Photo/Getty Images
3. On Boxing Day, 1953, in Johannesburg, Bob Blair and Bert Sutcliffe put aside injury and grief to forge a memorable cricketing partnership. Returning to Ellis Park, after being X-rayed for skull damage caused by a bouncer, to find the New Zealand innings in disarray, Sutcliffe ordered a double whisky, wrapped a towel around his bloodied head and returned to the fray. He was still there when the ninth wicket fell. The players began to leave the field because it was taken for granted that No 11 batsman Blair wasn’t taking any further part in the game: on Christmas Eve, his fiancée had been killed in the Tangiwai rail disaster. When the 21-year-old Blair emerged from the players’ tunnel, bat in hand, the 23,000-strong crowd fell silent. They found their voice when the pair hit four sixes in an over on their way to adding 33 off eight balls.
4. At the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, Peter Snell became the first man since the 1920s to do the 800m/1500m double. No one has done it since. His 800m gold medal in Rome four years earlier, along with Halberg’s win in the 5000m, ushered in a golden era of New Zealand middle-distance running, based on coach Arthur Lydiard’s endurance training regime. In Tokyo, though, Snell’s dominance was absolute. The image of the man in black powering down the home stretch with a field of lesser beings in his wake is perhaps the most thrilling in our sporting history.
The men’s eight celebrate winning gold at the 1972 Munich Olympics. Photo/Getty Images
5. The men’s eight winning gold at the 1972 Munich Olympics. It’s sometimes overlooked that our first rowing gold medal came in the men’s coxed four in Mexico four years earlier. However, the eight is the blue-ribbon event and it was this victory that captured the imagination and provided the impetus that has led to rowing becoming our most successful Olympic sport. Delighted that our true-blue amateurs had beaten the state-sponsored – and illegally pumped-up – East Germans, International Olympic Committee president Avery Brundage chose to present the medals himself. The medal ceremony marked the first time God Defend New Zealand was officially played at the Olympics.
6. Images of Jonah Lomu on the rampage – colossal, exotic, athletically freakish – thrilled the international audience at the 1995 Rugby World Cup. Twenty-five years earlier, Bryan Williams, another young, strapping Pacific Island wing from Auckland, took South Africa by storm and put the rugby world on notice that the Polynesians were coming. By turning England fullback Mike Catt into the most ineffectual speed bump in the Republic, en route to the first of his four semi-final tries, Lomu made it brutally clear they’d arrived. He provided rugby with the globally relevant icon it had hitherto lacked, and persuaded Rupert Murdoch to stage the intervention that facilitated the game’s comparatively orderly transition to professionalism.
Lydia Ko. Photo/Getty Images
7. Lydia Ko’s current struggles – she has just slipped out of the top 20 in the world rankings that she previously topped for 104 weeks – serve only to reinforce the size of her achievements. Quite simply, she ascended to a plane to which only the special ones can aspire. Renowned coach David Leadbetter reckoned her start in professional golf was “probably hotter” than Tiger Woods’. An ESPN columnist suggested she might be “the most successful teenage athlete in professional sports history”. Before turning 17, she made Time’s list of the 100 most influential people on the planet. What do you do for an encore?
8. Team New Zealand winning the America’s Cup in Bermuda in 2017. After the fiasco of the 2003 defence in Auckland and the heartbreak of San Francisco in 2013, and given the event increasingly seemed a plaything for billionaires always on the lookout for ways to exploit the wealth gap, Team New Zealand’s quest had taken on a quixotic air. But nothing about this campaign smacked of tilting at windmills. TNZ did what competitors dream of doing on the really big occasion: they turned a contest into an exhibition.

This article was first published in the August 10, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.