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16 December 2020 • General

New Zealand's top Olympic moments part two

Dame Valerie Adams celebrates winning gold in the women’s shot put at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing (Photo: Getty Images)

This year New Zealand toasted 100 years of Olympic Games competition as an independent nation. To further celebrate the centenary, we focus on 20 outstanding Olympic moments. In the second part of the series, we turn our gaze to ten magic memories from 1968 to 2016.

1 – Mike Ryan

Competing at an altitude of 2200m and in temperatures of 22C, perhaps no Kiwi has had to work harder for an Olympic medal than Scottish-born Mike, who won marathon bronze at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics.

A former Scottish junior mile champion, Mike emigrated to New Zealand just a month shy of his 22nd birthday and settled in Tokoroa. In 1966, he won the prestigious Fukuoka Marathon, as well as marathon bronze at the 1966 British Empire and Commonwealth Games in Jamaica, and he did not disappoint in the demanding conditions of Mexico City.

Despite twisting his ankle in his build-up to the race, Mike executed a wonderfully patient display to move into bronze at 35km and secure a spot on the podium in 2:23:45, behind gold medallist Mamo Wolde of Ethiopia.

2 – Rod Dixon

The charismatic Nelson-born Kiwi helped maintain New Zealand’s rich middle-distance heritage by winning a surprising 1500m bronze medal at the 1972 Munich Olympics.

Ranked only 47th of the 70 competitors in the 1500m field, few viewed the 22-year-old as a medal contender. But he was a much-improved athlete for spending the European summer on the international circuit.

He posted personal best times in the heats and semi-finals before lowering Peter Snell’s New Zealand record in the final, posting 3:37.5 for bronze behind the champion Pekka Vasala of Finland. His performance in Munich helped launch a long and successful international career, which was book-ended 11 years later by victory in the New York City Marathon.

3 – Sir John Walker

Facing intense pressure as the overwhelming favourite to win Olympic 1500m gold at the 1976 Montreal Games, the blonde-haired Kiwi withstood the high level of expectations to add to New Zealand’s enviable legacy in this event.

The previous year, Sir John had become the first man in history to run a sub-3:50 mile and – in the absence of several of his key rivals because of the African boycott, including Tanzania’s world 1500m record-holder Fibert Bayi – the expectation heaped upon the Auckland-born athlete was heightened.

In the final, Sir John made his winning move 300m from the finish, stealing a march on the field to strike gold in a time of 3:39.17 to become the third Kiwi after Jack Lovelock and Sir Peter Snell to hold this title.

4 – Dick Quax

Featuring in one the greatest 5000m races of all time, the Dutch-born Kiwi further cemented New Zealand’s rich endurance tradition by winning silver, just 0.40 behind Finnish distance great Lasse Viren, at the 1976 Montreal Olympics.

Shin splints had badly hampered his efforts at the 1972 Munich Olympics but a scintillating 13:13.10 – just one tenth outside the hand-timed world 5000m record of the time – in the countdown to Montreal hinted at his outstanding form.

In an absorbing race which ebbed and flowed, Dick momentarily took a slight lead entering the home straight, only for Viren to hit back and complete a second successive Olympic 5000m and 10,000m double. In a proud race for New Zealand, Dick won silver in 13:25.16 and Rod Dixon placed fourth in 13:25.60 – just 0.12 shy of the medal podium.  

5 – Lorraine Moller

Diligent preparation helped propel the 37-year-old to her greatest triumph as she claimed marathon bronze in sweltering temperatures at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.

A top-quality cross country and track athlete, it was in the marathon where Lorraine found her true calling. A winner of the Boston Marathon and 1986 Commonwealth silver, she recognised Barcelona would be her final realistic shot at an Olympic medal.

Scouting out the course the previous year, she spent much of her pre-race preparation running in sweats at her high-altitude training base in Boulder, Colorado to become more accustomed to running in the heat she was likely to face in Barcelona.

On the day of the marathon, the Putaruru-raised athlete executed an outstanding display, moving into third at 16 miles and stopping the clock in 2:33:59 to claim a highly acclaimed and popular spot on the dais.

6 – Dame Valerie Adams

The eight-time world champion and three-time Olympic shot put medallist (two gold, one silver) has enjoyed a career of so many highs, but perhaps nothing can top the Aucklander’s memorable victory at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

Unbeaten for almost two years, Dame Valerie was expected to deliver inside the Bird’s Nest Stadium and did not disappoint to secure New Zealand’s first Olympic athletics gold medal since Sir John Walker some 32 years earlier.

The shot put ace dominated the competition with her best effort of 20.56m earning her not only Olympic gold but also an Oceania record as she finished more than a metre clear of her nearest rivals.

7 – Nick Willis

In a nod to New Zealand’s proud Olympic 1500m heritage, Nick won bronze, later upgraded to silver, at the 2008 Beijing Olympics thanks to a beautifully judged race.

Born and raised in Lower Hutt, two years earlier Nick had shown his championship pedigree by striking 1500m gold at the Commonwealth Games and inside the Bird’s Nest Stadium he once again revealed his big race temperament.

Happy to lope along at the back of the field for much of the race, with 200m remaining he had moved up to sixth before launching a vicious kick down the home straight to pass three runners and cross the line third in 3:34.16.

Following a doping infringement by Rashid Ramzi, the man who had crossed the line first, Nick was upgraded to silver.

As another interesting aside, Asbel Kiprop, the Olympic 1500m champion from Beijing, has subsequently committed a doping offence.

8 – Tom Walsh   

The man from Timaru created history at the 2016 Rio Games by securing New Zealand’s first men’s Olympic field event medal with shot put bronze.

Tom had ventured into world-class territory in 2014, winning World Indoor bronze and Commonwealth silver. The following year, the shot powerhouse had placed fourth at the World Championships in Beijing and, earlier in 2016, had stepped up to take World Indoor gold in Portland.

Leading into the Rio Games, he was among the medal favourites and did not disappoint. Hurling the metal orb out to 21.36m in round five, he elevated himself into bronze to claim a precious spot on the medal dais.

9 – Eliza McCartney

Arguably the most celebrated Olympic bronze in New Zealand’s history arrived at the Rio Olympics when the then-teenage pole vault ace produced an outstanding display to capture the hearts of a nation.

A former world U-20 bronze medallist, prior to Rio the Aucklander had set four national records (three outdoors and one indoor) during a breakthrough 2016 campaign and was tipped as a dark horse for a medal.

In the biggest competition of her career, the ever-smiling athlete enjoyed a perfect record, up to and including her New Zealand record-equalling height of 4.80m, to clinch an unforgettable bronze and elevate her to superstar status in her homeland.

10 – Nick Willis

Some eight years after winning Olympic 1500m silver, the middle-distance star returned to claim bronze at the Rio Games and become the oldest man to win an Olympic medal over the metric mile distance.

Nick had been bitterly disappointed to finish ninth in the 2012 London Olympic final and managed to correct the wrongs of that performance in Rio.

Moving into bronze down the final stretch, he could not quite overhaul the gold and silver medallists, Matt Centrowitz of the US and Taoufik Makloufi of Algeria, but held on to match Sir Peter Snell as a two-time Olympic 1500m medallist.

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