John Roughan 's Opinion

John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

John Roughan: Olympics really are all about the nations

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Peter Snell was little known before he swept to victory in the 800m at the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome. Photo / File
Peter Snell was little known before he swept to victory in the 800m at the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome. Photo / File

Countries give their winners the recognition that rewards years of effort

The splendour of the Olympics, I think, springs from skills that are elementary and universal. Running, jumping, swimming, heaving things, hurling things. Anybody, you suppose, can do those, you don't need a team or very much technical training or equipment. You just need the desire.

Extra-ordinary desire. When I watch a medal ceremony I marvel at a life I can barely imagine. Hours and hours of doing something as tediously simple as running, every day, nearly always alone. Running and running, accompanied only by a clock.

In between, you'd be eating carefully, exercising to a prescribed schedule, year after year. Every so often you would go to competitions watched only by fellow enthusiasts and test yourself against the best. But even world championships count for nothing beside your real goal.

You have done all those long, lonely hours every day of every week of every year in the hope of a golden moment in a sun that shines on your effort just once every four years.

No, I can't imagine it. The glory doesn't seem worth it, even to me who has only seen the medal ceremony at its best - on television where it is the highlight of the evening news. At the stadium, I imagine, most of the spectators will be looking the other way when our flag rises. Our anthem will barely be heard above the hubbub.

At home we don't see how often the officials escort another three tracksuits to a podium and give them their moment in the sun. Every day at the stadium, the pool, the velodrome or the rowing course there will be scores of medal presentations, most of them in events of no interest to us, crowning a champion we will never know though he or she will be as acclaimed in their nation as ours here.

The notion that nationalism has poisoned the Games is pure humbug. Nations are the Olympics, not so much because they compare medal tallies but because nations do most, at the Games and afterwards, to affirm the achievement of their champions.

Worldwide fame is reserved for the winners of very few events: the men's 100m, the marathon maybe, the American (invariably) who wins everything in the pool. We used to think the mile was in the same exalted company when we had its best. But how many of us could name the winner of the 1500m at the last Olympics?

An African probably. Africans have dominated middle and long distance running ever since New Zealand's heyday ended. Many today would see some divine justice there.

John Walker won our last 1500m gold in 1976, the year African nations walked out of a Games because of us. Readers too young to remember probably suppose that was a traumatic moment for this country. It should have been but it wasn't.

I recall watching the opening ceremony from Montreal and noticing the gaps in the parade as teams entered the stadium. African nations had been threatening for months to withdraw in protest at our rugby matches with South Africa, but we didn't believe they really would.

When they did, this country was unmoved. I don't mean stubborn or bloody minded. I mean indifferent. We shrugged it off. Our only regret was that we wouldn't see the supreme contest between Walker and Tanzania's Filbert Bayi.

As for the fact that Bayi and hundreds of other African athletes would miss the greatest experience of their lives, well that was their governments' fault. Nothing to do with us.

That surprised me at the time and still does. We were a different country back then but not that different. Despite rugby, despite Muldoon, despite the fact that for most of the population at that time sport and politics really didn't mix, there was a core of decency that I'd have thought would have been at least embarrassed.

But not a bit. Muldoon was able to resist pressure from the Commonwealth, signing the Gleneagles agreement with a grudge and making sure its language left him wriggle room for a Springbok tour in 1981.

A different time.

I don't suppose karma really explains our demise in middle distance running but it is odd that Walker and contemporaries such as Rod Dixon and Dick Quax did not inspire a generation of milers as Halberg and Snell inspired them.

Halberg and Snell. Our Olympic memories always come back to them.

I was a kid in 1960, my ear up to a wireless. It was a few minutes away from the race we'd been waiting for, the 5000m that we desperately wanted Murray Halberg to win.

While waiting, we heard the 800m final and suddenly, through static, the British commentator was shouting: "Snell of New Zealand ... Snell ... Snell of New Zealand."

We'd never heard of him. That is what the Olympics can do.

- NZ Herald

John Roughan

John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald. A graduate of Canterbury University with a degree in history and a diploma in journalism, he started his career on the Auckland Star, travelled and worked on newspapers in Japan and Britain before returning to New Zealand where he joined the Herald in 1981. He was posted to the Parliamentary Press Gallery in 1983, took a keen interest in the economic reform programme and has been a full time commentator for the Herald since 1986. He became the paper's senior editorial writer in 1988 and has been writing a weekly column under his own name since 1996. His interests range from the economy, public policy and politics to the more serious issues of life.

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