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Sir Murray Halberg

Perhaps no name in New Zealand athletics history quite transcends the sport quite like Sir Murray Halberg.

During an extraordinary life, the Kiwi legend overcame a severe arm injury to become an Olympic 5000m gold medallist, while his inspirational work to transform the life of children with a disability through sport via the Halberg Foundation has left a powerful legacy few can match.

Born in Eketahuna but raised in Auckland, Halberg, who attended Avondale College, was a keen sportsman in his youth. He enjoyed both cricket and rugby and also enjoyed some success running for Owairaka Athletic Club.

At the age of 17, however, the shape of his sporting life was to alter after he sustained a serious shoulder injury on the rugby field, which left Murray with a withered left arm.

Undergoing months of rehabilitation, the left-handed Murray had to teach himself to write and eat with his right hand, and it also forced a shift in sporting priorities.

“After the injury it become more of a necessity to avoid contact sports,” explains Murray. “Prior to my accident I’d been a member of Owairaka Athletics Club and that became more of a focus after my accident.”

Showing great tenacity to overcome the disability and give of his best on the running track, Murray’s first coach, Bert Payne, recognised his athletic potential and introduced him to Arthur Lydiard – who was establishing a growing reputation within New Zealand for his high-mileage training programme.

Aged 18 at the time, Murray’s initial memories of Lydiard have blurred over the years, but he recalls quickly embracing his coach’s training load, which sometimes touched 100 mile per week.

“Arthur looked to develop stamina and prepared us as if we were marathon runners,” recalls Murray from his Waiheke Island home, where he lives with wife, Phyllis.  “But it wasn’t just me that improved under the training, Bill Baillie, Barry Magee, Peter Snell all of us did. Success bred success.”

In 1953 he won the New Zealand cross country senior title at the age of 20 and the following year won the first of his five national mile titles to earn selection for the 1954 British Empire and Commonwealth Games in Vancouver.

In Canada, Murray placed fifth in the “Miracle Mile” won by Great Britain’s Sir Roger Bannister from Australia’s John Landy, but under the tutelage of Lydiard he was confident his best days were to come.

Disappointment was to follow at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, when he finished 11th in the 1500m final at the MCG. A poor tactical display had left Murray feeling “dejected and borne down by a sense of failure.”

Yet out of the ashes of such disappointment, Murray and his team sought fresh challenges for the future.

“I was not good enough (in Melbourne),” he explains. “That is when it was decided I should step up in distance (to the 5000m and three-mile races), which was a natural progression. The disappointment of Melbourne fired me up. I felt I could do much better in the future.”

The step up in distance was something that the 1956 Olympic steeplechase champion Sir Chris Chataway of Great Britain also suggested in conversation to Murray.

“Chataway, interestingly, said to me, ‘I’d be better running the 5000m and three miles than a shorter, faster event’.”

Returning to training under the guidance of the inspirational Lydiard, in 1958 he became the first New Zealander to run a sub-four-minute mile and won the first of his five successive national three-mile titles.

Later that year he also excelled on the international stage, winning the three-mile title at the British Empire and Commonwealth Games in Cardiff, courtesy of a long and sustained run over the final three laps. Two weeks later he set a world best time of 18:22.6 for the four-mile distance in Dublin.

By the time of the 1960 Rome Olympics, Halberg was a stronger more mature athlete and among the favourites for 5000m gold.

On the day of his final he recalls a statement made by Lydiard, while riding on the jeep on the way to the stadium, which was to prove stunningly prescient.

“I was with Peter Snell, the team manager and Valerie Sloper (who went on to finish fourth that day in the women’s shot put) when Arthur leaned across Peter and I to say, ‘Peter Snell will be Olympic champion before you’.”

Lydiard’s prediction was to prove accurate as Snell raced to glory in the men’s 800m final before, within the hour, Halberg lined up for the 5000m final inside the Rome Olympic Stadium.

“I knew Peter had won gold (before Murray’s race), so I said to myself ‘Pete has done it, so can I’,” recalls Murray.

Adopting the same courageous strategy when winning gold in Cardiff, he executed the tactical plan to perfection in the Italian capital.

Bursting clear of the field with three laps to go and building up a 20m advantage, he repelled the strong challenge from German Hans Grodotski to win by 1.25 seconds in 13:43.76 and secure the gold Lydiard had predicted.

“It was very different to Cardiff when I ran away from the field because in Rome I was hanging on,” recalls Halberg. “The pain is something you forget easily, but I won because of my resolve, the thought that if I was ever going to do it, this was the time.”

Murray also later recalls a conversation he had with the four-time Olympic distance running champion Emil Zatopek in which the Czech questioned his tactics in Rome.

“Emil said, ‘why did you run that way, when you were the fastest man in the field?’ I replied to Emil ‘If I had left it to a sprint I could have won, but running this way I was sure I could win’.”

Murray, who in the 1960s worked for New Zealand Breweries, returned to his homeland a hero and he quickly discovered his new status made him a man in demand. Embarking on a whirlwind schedule of school talks, prize-giving ceremonies and banquets, he recalls his diary was “pretty full for quite a few years.”

But in the days before computerisation, when organising a schedule could be more challenging, he says on a couple of occasions he was double booked.

“I remember getting into trouble with someone, I can’t remember who, because I didn’t turn up to one function,” he adds with a chuckle.

Appointed as a Member of the Order of the British Empire, for services to athletics and the inaugural winner of the New Zealand Olympic Committee’s Lonsdale Cup in 1961, on the track that year he sought top quality competition. Disappointed that many of his Rome rivals opted not to compete, he turned his attention to world records and set four during an outstanding year.

Murray travelled to Portland, Oregon in January, and shattered the two-mile indoor record by almost 12 seconds in 8:34.3. He then emerged for the European campaign hungry for more success. In July he set a further three world records with a world two-mile record of 8:30.0 in Jyvaskyla, Finland, a three-mile world record of 13:10.0 in Stockholm and sandwiched between, Murray featured as part of the New Zealand quartet which lowered the world four x one mile relay world record in Dublin.

Yet one of the most satisfying races of his career was to come in 1962 with the retention of his three-mile title at the British Empire and Commonwealth Games in Perth. 

“Some of my rivals had actually stated that they could beat me in a sprint but that day I outpaced Australia’s Ron Clarke, Canadian Bruce Kidd and England’s Bruce Tulloh,” he recalls.

Unleashing a devastating final lap of 53.8 he destroyed the opposition to stop the clock in 13:34.2 to enjoy yet another gold medal success.

Murray went on to compete at his third and final Olympics in Tokyo in 1964. However, believing he was “over-prepared” and having “overdone it’ in training he missed out on a spot in the 5000m by one place and four tenths of a second. In the 10,000m final he placed seventh.

Yet as big as his on track contribution was to New Zealand sport, it could be argued his herculean efforts in setting up the Halberg Foundation has left an even stronger legacy.

Inspired by a fundraising dinner he attended in Canada to raise money for children with a disability he founded the Halberg Foundation in 1963.

For the past 56 years the charitable organisation has enhanced the lives of many young people with a physical disability through sport and recreation. Among the foundation’s work is to host the annual Halberg Games for youngsters with a disability.

Meanwhile, the Foundation’s flagship fundraising event is the Halberg Awards, New Zealand’s pre-eminent sports awards to honour and celebrate sporting excellence.

Murray is immensely proud of his work with the foundation in which his selfless dedication has won him much acclaim.

“Personally, I was given the opportunity to do sport and I was always grateful to Arthur for this,” explains Murray. “So my belief was always to develop opportunity. I am keenly aware that many people have an inherent love of sport and my feeling is that through the foundation we should give that opportunity to young people who have a wish and desire to participate in sport and recreation.

“These young athletes that participate are an inspiration. Through their shared experiences in sport, this shows they are not simply people filling in time. They are athletes in the truest sense, some progressing to become Paralympians.”

Yet although quite rightly proud of the Halberg Foundation’s legacy he fully acknowledges the vital role countless people have made to ensure its ongoing success.

“Whilst the foundation bears my name it is only thanks to the work and support and dedication of hundreds of people who are committed to the cause which has allowed it to prosper,” he adds.

Knighted in 1988 for services to sport and children with a disability two years later he was inducted into the New Zealand Sports Hall of Fame.

In 2008, Sir Murray was appointed to New Zealand’s highest non-titular honour, the Order of New Zealand. The following month he became only the fourth person to be awarded the Blake Medal (named after his countryman Sir Peter Blake) for his 50 years of service to athletics and with work with children with a disability.

Having managed a soft furnishing business for many years before moving to Waiheke Island, where for a number of years he worked in a hardware store, Murray has been retired for some time.

Now aged 86 and having survived cancer and a heart attack he believes his deep resolve and determination not be beaten were his outstanding qualities as an athlete.

However, he believes none of this would have been remotely possible without the guidance of the inspirational Arthur Lydiard.

“Arthur created a family within the training group,” he explains. “We used to run from his home in Mt Roskill and he always took a great interest in our personal development. Without Arthur it would have been an absolute miracle had I become Olympic champion. Lydiard was the power behind all of us in our training group. He was a motivator, coach, mentor and friend.”

Photo Credit: New Zealand Sports Hall of Fame Museum

Author: Steve Landells

Copyright 2019 by Athletics New Zealand