Race for glory: The legacy of Maori Olympians

by Ben Stanley / 24 January, 2017
The New Zealand rowing team for the 1932 Olympics in LA.

Iwi affiliations were generously strewn through the biographies of our 2016 Olympics team. But in the early history of the Games, among New Zealand’s mostly white sports heroes, Ben Stanley uncovers the triumphant and tragic stories of our two first Maori Olympians.

Te Tau Ihu o Te Waka-a-Maui – the prow of Maui’s waka – dipped low in the waves on October 28, 1937.

Three days before, Lawrence “Jumbo” Jackson jumped on the back of a truck in Blenheim. He’d been in town to represent Picton Rowing Club at a regional meeting, and was heading back home.

It started to rain – heavy and cold – just as the ride home began. A tarp was offered to Jackson, but he turned it down. After all, Jackson – a whaling station labourer and former Olympic rower – could handle it. He was 30 years old, with big broad shoulders and a massive, muscular frame. He was as fit and healthy as a Kiwi bloke could be. Why else would they call him Jumbo?

The rain continued for the whole ride back to Picton. Jackson caught pneumonia. Three days later, he was dead.

The day after he died, his body was placed on the front veranda of the Picton home of his foster parents, Harry and Martha Jackson. They, along with Jackson’s widow, Mary, and their three small children, flanked the coffin as the town came to pay its respects.

Years later, people said the wailing could be heard that day all around Picton. The town had lost their finest son. His family had lost a son, husband and father.

Maui had lost one of his finest oarsmen.

When Lisa Carrington muscled across the finish line in the Olympic K1 200m canoe sprint final at Eton Dorney four years ago, New Zealand celebrated. The 23-year-old had claimed the sixth and final Kiwi gold of the London Games, finishing off what would be New Zealand’s best Olympics since Los Angeles in 1984.

Yet on August 11, 2012, Carrington also created another, more important, piece of Kiwi sporting history. Of Ngati Porou and Te Aitanga-a-Mahaki descent, she became the first Maori Olympian to win a gold medal.

Her Maori heritage was not unusual among the London team. Twenty-one other athletes had iwi affiliations, including bronze medal-winning rower Storm Uru, of Ngai Tahu. The Kiwi team at the coming Rio de Janeiro Olympics will feature a large number of Maori links as well. For recent generations, race has counted for little when it has come to sport in New Zealand.

Yet in 1932, when the New Zealand Olympic Committee (NZOC) named its first ever rowing eight for the Los Angeles Games of the X Olympiad later that year, it recorded another, more significant, first. It named our first two Maori Olympians: Picton’s Lawrence Jackson, of Ngai Tahu, and Blenheim’s John Hoani “Jack” Macdonald, of Rangitane.

In 2012, the NZOC held a small ceremony in Wellington ahead of the London Games to commemorate the deeds of the pair, before setting up a database for all Maori Olympians; otherwise, Jackson and Macdonald’s exploits have received little recognition since 1932.

Dick Garratt, one of New Zealand’s leading authorities on Maori sporting history, isn’t surprised, given the era they hailed from. He believes race was a factor in determining who got to wear the silver fern, including at the Olympics and for the All Blacks.

 “Let’s be honest, and I’m not raising it in a bad way, but we used the word ‘colour’,” he tells North & South. “It was quite sad in that era that colour distinction often carried into selections. Things are a lot better these days, especially in team sports, but there’s still a little undercurrent there.”

Garratt runs the Maori Sports Hall of Fame and Aotearoa Maori Tennis Association out of his garage in the Auckland suburb of Papatoetoe. With photos of Hall of Fame inductees and Athletes of the Year adorning the walls, the building is a treasure trove of archival information on Maori in sport.

Macdonald, arguably one of New Zealand’s most talented all-round athletes in the 1920s and 30s, faced discrimination in rugby. A dynamic outside back, he was once selected for both teams in a 1929 All Blacks vs Maori All Blacks match. Native Affairs Minister Sir Apirana Ngata is said to have advised him to stand down from both to avoid controversy – which he did.

In a 1936 column for the Evening Post, All Black legend George Nepia, later a long-time friend and team-mate of Macdonald’s, suggested that his mate’s failure to be selected for a test team was due to discrimination.

However, while Macdonald would never play test rugby, his descendants would, forming part of arguably New Zealand’s finest sporting whanau: the Macdonalds/MacDonalds of Marlborough.

Ex-All Blacks Leon MacDonald and Jamie Joseph are both grand-nephews of the former Olympian, while more recently Hoani MacDonald has played for the Maori All Blacks. A raft of professional rugby league players, netballers and a former Tall Blacks captain – also called John Macdonald – are all related to the man they call “Uncle Jack”.

John “Jack” Macdonald, born in Blenheim on October 26, 1907, was one of 14 brothers and sisters who were brought up by their grandparents in Grovetown. His whanau’s spiritual home is Kowhai Pa on the Wairau Bar, where the family has farmed for generations.

It was a huge extended family, with many of the 21 children of the eldest brother, Manny, growing up alongside their uncles and aunts. The spelling of their last name has been a contentious issue for the wider family over the years, though all of Jack’s brothers and sisters were made to spell it with a lower case “d” by their mother.

From a young age, Jack Macdonald’s sporting ability was clear. Although he would eventually become a sporting polymath, rugby was his first love. He first made the Marlborough rugby team as a 19-year-old in 1926 – and the Maori All Blacks later that year for an extensive tour of Australia, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), France, England, Wales and Canada.

Right: Jack Macdonald (Rangitane). Left: Lawrence Jackson (Ngai Tahu).

Right: Jack Macdonald (Rangitane). Left: Lawrence Jackson (Ngai Tahu).

Though he played the majority of his provincial rugby for Marlborough, Macdonald played a season for Manawhenua (an amalgamation of the Manawatu and Horowhenua unions) in 1927, even scoring the winning try as his side took the Ranfurly Shield off Wairarapa on August 6.

Macdonald would go on to be selected for four Maori tours to Australia between 1929 and 1935, along with his near-All Blacks call-up
and a South Island rep team place in 1929. “He was a contemporary of Nepia,” says Garratt.

Initially a member of the Wairau Rowing Club and later Picton, he was selected to compete at the 1930 Empire Games in Hamilton, Canada – winning gold in the fours, and a silver in the eights.

Picton is where Macdonald’s story intersects with his future Olympic companion, Jumbo Jackson, who was born Lawrence Woodgate at Tahuahua (Blackwood Bay) in Queen Charlotte Sound on February 27, 1907. Tragedy struck the family in October 1911, when his mother died from pneumonia, which she contracted after giving birth to a daughter, her 11th child. The illness would also claim the lives of Lawrence’s eldest brother, Thomas Jnr, and his maternal grandparents.

His father, Thomas Snr, was a shearer who was often away from his family, and unable to deal with the 10 remaining children. They were taken in by family and friends across the Sounds, while Lawrence was adopted by the Jacksons in Picton.

Years later, Sharon Williamson, a well-known member of the Marlborough rowing community, was given the task of researching Jackson’s family links by the president of New Zealand Rowing Association. “I told him, ‘Actually, I’m his granddaughter’,” she says.

Williamson’s father, John, was one of the three young children on the front veranda flanking Jumbo Jackson’s coffin the day after he died. Sharon, a former regional high-performance manager of secondary school rowing, has dedicated much of her own life to the sport. Her husband, David, is a long-time Marlborough Girls’ College rowing coach, and their children grew up competing alongside future Olympic double sculls gold medalist Joseph Sullivan, who also aligns himself with Picton Rowing Club. “It’s neat to think that with me, my husband and our children so involved in rowing that, back then, he was the start of it all,” she says.

Jumbo Jackson grew up tall and powerful. By his late teens, he was a regular at the Picton Rowing Club. The NZOC records that his “judgment and great strength” gained him quick prominence in rowing circles. His body was perfect as an anchor for the eight, and the club was grateful for it. Jackson would help it win a national fours title in 1930, putting him on the radar for the rowing team for the Los Angeles Olympics two years later.

For the country’s first Olympic eight, the national selectors decided to pick the majority of the rowers from the same area to ensure they knew each other’s styles, and could train together easily. The Picton-Marlborough area was chosen. Jackson and Macdonald would form the engine room of the eight, sitting fourth and fifth in the boat, while Picton’s Delmont Gullery would be the cox.

Blenheim rowers Charlie Saunders and Bert Sandos were teammates of Macdonald’s from the Empire Games, while George Cooke – later killed fighting in Greece during World War II – would be the team’s stroke. John Solomon, from Dunedin, was also chosen, while Christchurch’s Cyril Stiles and Fred Thompson, who would win silver in LA in the coxless pair, rounded out the team.

The Long Beach Marine Stadium, where the rowing events of the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles were held.

The Long Beach Marine Stadium, where the rowing events of the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles were held.

The world was in the midst of the Depression when the 1932 Olympics began at the Los Angeles Coliseum on July 30. While fewer countries – and smaller teams – attended than at the Amsterdam Games four years prior, more than 100,000 people filled the stadium for the opening ceremony. They cheered on as Macdonald, the flag-bearer, led in the New Zealand team.

The rowing eight and their cox formed the backbone of the 21-strong Kiwi contingent. Runner Jack Lovelock – then a 22-year-old Rhodes Scholar at Oxford – would compete in the 1500 metres (he’d finish seventh), while Auckland’s Ron Foubister made history as the first Kiwi Olympic cyclist in the road race.

The team had arrived the week before, travelling across the Pacific in the SS Monowai. Training was limited on the ship’s deck during the two-week journey to California, as was equipment for competition. The Picton Rowing Club had to fundraise just so Jackson could have a new pair of shoes for the Games, says Sharon Williamson. “It was smell-of-an-oily-rag sort of stuff.”

Rowing took place in the new custom-built Marine Stadium at Long Beach. New Zealand’s first performance saw them finish last in the second four-team heat of the eights, meaning they would have to beat Great Britain in a one-on-one repechage to reach the final. They were pipped by three seconds, in a time that would have seen them triumphant in the second repechage.

While their Olympic adventure was over in two brief races, the Kiwi eight were said to be the envy of the rest of the rowing crews when they were invited to the homes of Hollywood stars Marlene Dietrich and Norma Shearer, thanks to a team member knowing the well-connected Kiwi actress Nola Luxford.

After returning to New Zealand, Jackson worked at the Perano Whaling Station on Arapawa Island and won the national fours rowing title for Picton again in 1936 before he died, tragically young, the following year.

Macdonald also returned to New Zealand, but in 1935 signed a professional contract with the Streatham and Mitcham Rugby League Club in London. Nepia signed up, too, and the pair became close friends. When the club folded a couple of years later, Macdonald took two more contracts in northern England, before war broke out in 1939. He joined the Royal Air Force, becoming a pilot instructor, and later transferred to the Royal New Zealand Air Force, flying transport planes in England and Singapore after the war.

Sport remained a big part of Macdonald’s life; he captained the New Zealand Services tennis team at Wimbledon, various rugby and league service teams, and regularly boxed as an amateur in London.

At the end of the 1940s, Macdonald managed a milk bar in Sutton, south of London, where he would live for 20 years, before moving to Bournemouth. After nearly 40 years in the UK, he came home to New Zealand in 1975. The following year, he married Janet Carey, a widowed war bride who lived in Picton. Their later-life romance was a strong one, and Macdonald’s last years were happy ones.

He loved Picton, and very rarely left the town. With Janet, he played golf and tennis regularly – and they bought a Jaguar. They once took the Jag on a rare road trip, heading to the North Island’s East Cape in an attempt to catch up with his old friend, Nepia. In Ruatoria, a local directed them down a particular road, saying Nepia’s farm was “the second-to-last before the sea”. They never found him.

Late in 1980, Macdonald developed cancer. It spread quickly, taking only six weeks to claim his life. He died on New Year’s Day 1981, aged 74 –survived by Janet and Carolina, his Dunedin-based daughter from a brief first marriage in the mid-1930s.

A 1937 cartoon from the Huddersfield Examiner on Macdonald’s sporting exploits, by Harry Fieldhouse. From Dick Garratt's private collection.

A 1937 cartoon from the Huddersfield Examiner on Macdonald’s sporting exploits, by Harry Fieldhouse. From Dick Garratt's private collection.

Recognition for Macdonald and Jackson – and all Maori Olympians – may have been negligible over the years, but the recent decade has seen a change.

Sharon Williamson got the ball rolling when she and husband David donated the Jumbo Jackson Cup to secondary school rowing in 2007. The trophy is now awarded to the top girls’ under-17 double at Maadi Cup regattas.

In 2008, in a ceremony in Rotorua attended by a number of relatives, Macdonald was inducted into the Maori Sports Hall of Fame. Jackson is a likely inductee in coming years, Garratt says.

Leon MacDonald, who played in 56 tests for the All Blacks, says family legend has kept alive the revered reputation of his great-uncle among the latest generation of this famous sporting family. “He probably tops the list in terms of the most prominent Macdonald sportsman, but you could argue he was one of New Zealand’s great sportsmen, too.”

Given that Jack Macdonald is undeniably one of New Zealand’s finest all-round athletes of his era, it seems peculiar he has yet to be inducted into the New Zealand Sports Hall of Fame in Dunedin. Nephew John Macdonald believes he should be there, as does Garratt. “What’s sad is the fact Macdonald has never been recognised in that way,” he says. “He was an amazing sportsman and an amazing man.”

More than formal recognition, Garratt sees the legacy of our earliest Maori Olympians, especially Macdonald, echoing through to our most recent champions.

“They’re the blueprint – John and Jumbo. Look at Lisa Carrington. For me, the most important thing was her whanau. She came from a secure, supportive whanau – exactly like Macdonald’s.

“They showcase how our Maori athletes can be supported, and rise up. Not drinking hundreds of crates of beer in the backyard or whatever, or gang situations. Here are parents that embrace whanaungatanga [a strong sense of kinship, and close family connection] at its very best.”

In the years leading up to his death, Macdonald coached the Picton Rowing Club’s women’s eight. It was a role he reveled in, according to his widow, Janet, who’s now 93. He guided the crew as far as national-level races on Lake Karapiro.

The rowing club lies over the far-eastern end of Picton Harbour in front of Janet’s house, where she still lives with her daughter from an earlier marriage. Janet says her husband loved that view. Along the street and over the bridge he would walk, then down towards the club to open the three big double-doors and pull out the boats.

More than 50 years earlier, he’d been in that exact same spot with Jackson, doing the exact same thing. Into those power-seats of the boat the pair would go – back home again – pushing the oars into the water and off from the shore. Out into Picton Harbour, and into the mist of sporting history.

He waka eke noa.


This article first appeared in the August 2016 issue of North & South.
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