How ballet and team sprit helped seal one of New Zealand's most remarkable Olympic golds

As part of our comprehensive build-up to Rio 2016, the Herald, in association with ANZ, is counting down New Zealand's top Olympic towns. Today, number nine - Christchurch. Find out how we compiled the list below.

It was one of New Zealand's most remarkable Olympic performances - and a Christchurch coach who wanted his players to emulate ballet great Rudolf Nuryev deserves a lot of credit.

When the men's team won our only hockey medal so far, gold at the 1976 Games in Montreal, the 16-strong squad contained four players born in the Garden City, then one of the sport's powerbases.

Selwyn Maister was one, and among seven players who had made Canterbury a force in the sport.

Much of that power resided in the University club, and was nurtured by one of New Zealand hockey's most distinctive characters, Cyril 'CV' Walter.

Walter - who finished with a 183 win-20 loss record with Canterbury and guided University to 14 straight club titles - was worshipped by his players.

He drilled basic skills into them through repetition and his word was hockey law.

A man of entrenched left-wing convictions, often derided as a communist, Walter never shoved his political beliefs down his players' throats, but they were hooked on his hockey teachings.

"Cyril was a very analytical person and most of us were slightly academic in nature, so we understood what he was talking about very clearly. It just made sense," Maister recalled.

Walter used the great ballet dancer Rudolf Nuryev as an example of his thinking.

"He used to tell us things like the reason in ballet you have to do things over and over again is the mind remembers what to do, but the body forgets," said Maister.

"So you have to train the body. It's something I've always remembered. He was a wise man and we all learnt a lot from Cyril, not just in hockey but in life."

Christchurch is ninth on our list of the 10 top Olympic towns thanks to 16 Olympians who won 18 medals, including nine golds.

The run of glory started with Anthony Wilding's bronze in the tennis at the 1912 Games in Stockholm. A century later, Nathan Cohen won gold in the men's double sculls in London alongside fellow Cantabrian Joseph Sullivan.

The feats of the 1976 men's hockey team are celebrated in Striking for Gold, a book by journalist Suzanne McFadden. Until then they had been among the more unsung of this country's sports achievements.

Maister's Christchurch-born team-mates were Selwyn Maister's brother Barry, John Christensen and Tony Ineson.

Selwyn Maister, a Rhodes Scholar who studied enzymology at Oxford University, said one reason for the strong performance of the Cantabrians was their indoor training at places with concrete and wooden floors.

The hard surfaces meant the ball ran true. When the players arrived in Montreal, they took one look at the venue and were purring. It was the first Olympic tournament to be played on artificial turf.

Rower Nathan Cohen, who won gold in the men's double sculls at London four years ago, is the most recent Christchurch-born Olympian to land a medal. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Rower Nathan Cohen, who won gold in the men's double sculls at London four years ago, is the most recent Christchurch-born Olympian to land a medal. Photo / Brett Phibbs

"As soon as we saw it we thought 'this is our surface'. It was a fantastic feeling because we knew we could play well on that surface," Maister said.

New Zealand's progress to the final was far from smooth. It wasn't until their third game against Belgium that they had a win, after draws against West Germany and Spain.

A 5-2 tonking from Pakistan meant they had to face the Spanish again to make the semifinals. A Ramesh Patel goal in the third period of extra time earned them a 1-0 win.

The Dutch were waiting in the semifinals and, again, a third period of overtime was required before New Zealand nailed a 2-1 victory.

The final wasn't the greatest of games from a technical standpoint. Captain Ineson's penalty corner strike in the 42nd minute gave New Zealand the lead and they withstood fierce Australian pressure.

Anthony Wilding, who also won four straight Wimbledon titles, was the first Christchurch-born athlete to win an Olympic medal, with bronze in the 1912 Games in Stockholm.
Anthony Wilding, who also won four straight Wimbledon titles, was the first Christchurch-born athlete to win an Olympic medal, with bronze in the 1912 Games in Stockholm.

When Maister ponders the key ingredients in one of New Zealand's most remarkable Olympic golds, team spirit and camaraderie are high on his list.

"It was probably the best team spirit I can think of. And we adapted quicker to the turf than any other country.

"I don't think it hit a lot of us till we got home. We thought it was pretty cool; when we got back we understood what it meant to the country. New Zealand had only got two medals, John Walker's (in the 1500m) and us."

Christchurch had played a significant part in the story.

- David Leggat

'They give us enormous pride'

Kevin Barry of New Zealand at the Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, 1984. Photo / AP
Kevin Barry of New Zealand at the Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, 1984. Photo / AP

Christchurch's sporting heroes are household names - even in the least sporty homes.

Legendary figures like tennis player Anthony Wilding and boxer-turned-trainer Kevin Barry are part of the city's fabric, according to Deputy Mayor Vicki Buck.

"Those names are immersed in who you are growing up here, even if you're not an avid boxing fan or don't go to all the rugby games or whatever, you know all these people incredibly well and you know they are doing amazing things," she said.

"They're not all that makes the place, we are not defined by them, but it's important. It gives us enormous pride."

Hockey, rowing and sailing dominate Christchurch's medal haul.

The city's rowing heritage dates to the 1840s when English settlers brought the then-gentile past-time down under.

In 1861, Canterbury Rowing Club was established, making it the oldest in New Zealand.

Christchurch rowing stalwart John Wylie said that early history paved the way for Avon Rowing Club's Cyril Stiles and Fred Thompson to claim coxless pairs silver at the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles.

Legendary figures like tennis player Anthony Wilding and boxer-turned-trainer Kevin Barry are part of the city's fabric, according to Deputy Mayor Vicki Buck. Photo / Richard Robinson
Legendary figures like tennis player Anthony Wilding and boxer-turned-trainer Kevin Barry are part of the city's fabric, according to Deputy Mayor Vicki Buck. Photo / Richard Robinson

"That first success led to further British Empire Games success, going on to '72, and since then we've had a steady stream of representatives."

It was a similar story for sailing when Peter Mander won gold at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, described by sailing historian and author Nick Tolerton as one of New Zealand's most important medals.

"It showed what our seat-of-the-pants yachties could do on an international stage, and from it followed New Zealand's remarkable list of sailing achievements at world yachting regattas and the America's Cup over subsequent decades," he said.

"Mander cut his sailing teeth messing about in boats on the Christchurch estuary with his mates, thinking up their own ideas to make their boats go faster and learning the subtleties of the tides and winds."

Some of the city's sporting success can be attributed to the range of facilities and options.

"Most sports were well-catered for in terms of their structure," Olympic hockey gold medallist Selwyn Maister said.

"Competitions were well-formed. Whatever sport you took on there was a facility and some structure."

- Kurt Bayer

How we did it

We analysed information about every summer Games medallist to come up with the 10 places that have made the biggest contribution to Olympic glory.

The final position is the result of combining two rankings.

The gold rank is based on the number of gold medals won by people born in each town and city, divided by current population.

The Olympic rank is based on the number of medal-winning Olympians born in each town and city, divided by current population.

We averaged the rankings to come up with the final position.

Today's town, Christchurch, is ninth on the ladder. It boasts 16 Olympians who won 18 medals, including nine golds, and a population of 356,700 according to 2015 figures from Statistics NZ.

Its gold rank is 10 and Olympic rank 9, giving an average of 9.5.

The method isn't scientific and we expect it to prompt debate. We know some athletes might identify with the towns they were brought up in rather than where they were born.

But our ranking gives a strong indication of the places that have given us greatest cause to celebrate Olympic success since Harry Kerr won New Zealand's first medal - a bronze in the 3500m walk at the 1908 Games in London.

Our series continues every Saturday and Wednesday in July.

- NZ Herald

Get the news delivered straight to your inbox

Receive the day’s news, sport and entertainment in our daily email newsletter

SIGN UP NOW

© Copyright 2017, NZME. Publishing Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production bpcf03 at 29 May 2017 02:59:44 Processing Time: 625ms