New Zealand's Greatest Olympians - Number 15: Murray Halberg

By David Leggat

We're counting down New Zealand's 25 greatest Olympians. Today, middle distance runner Sir Murray Halberg.

Gold: 5000m, Rome, 1960

His name resonates far beyond the simple credentials of an Olympic champion.

Murray Halberg's work with crippled children, plus his athletic performances, and his association with the country's premier annual sports awards, place him among the elite New Zealanders.

Unlike his mate Peter Snell, Halberg arrived at the Rome Olympics of 1960 rated among the more favoured runners in the 5000m.

After all, he had won the three-mile gold at the 1958 Empire Games in Cardiff, had been a world class miler through the middle of that decade - in an era of outstanding middle distance men - and was regarded as a senior figure in the New Zealand Games team.

Master athletics coach Arthur Lydiard, who oversaw the pair, and others such as Barry Magee - who won bronze in the marathon in Rome - Bill Baillie and Jeff Julian, on their gruelling training runs in the hills of Auckland's west, later remarked that he had concerns over how the 21-year-old Snell would cope in Rome; but no such worries over Halberg.

Snell and Halberg were to become inextricably linked on September 2, 1960.

They were responsible for what became known as New Zealand athletics' golden hour.

Snell won the 800m final, with a desperate lunge at the line, the first of his three Olympic gold medals.

Halberg didn't see the race. He was in the tunnel under Rome's Olympic stadium preparing for his race. He had qualified for the final comfortably, finishing second in his heat.

Another incentive for Halberg was the memory of finishing a disappointing 11th in the 5000m at Melbourne four years earlier.

"I did not do too well at Melbourne. I was quite resolved that when I returned to the Olympic arena it would not be as someone who was an also-ran," Halberg said.

Now, as the athletes were led down the tunnel towards the track, and knowing when Snell was running, Halberg saw officials coming towards them.

"They were looking a bit stunned. I said 'who won the 800m?' They said 'Schnell'. I could not believe it. That for me was the last piece of the jigsaw. I consciously remember a thought pattern, saying to myself, 'Pete's won it, so can I'."

Three laps from the end, Halberg ran clear, 20, 25, 30m ahead. From then on "it simply became a matter of staying on my feet and keep moving forward until I finally got there".

Halberg won in 13min 43.76 seconds, almost two seconds ahead of Germany Hans Grodotzki.

Halberg collapsed, still clutching the tape. Among the first to reach him was Snell.

"Peter was really quite concerned. He tells me he leant over me and said 'are you all right Muzz? Are you all right?' Of course, Muzz didn't respond that instant."

Australian running legend Ron Clarke described it as "probably the most courageous run in Olympic history".

The final cherry on top for Halberg was the medal presentation from New Zealand's 1924 Olympic sprint bronze medallist Sir Arthur Porritt. Accident or design?

"Apparently he came to the New Zealand headquarters and asked which would be a good day to present medals. The message was given to him that this would be the day he should present medals."

Someone clearly knew something.

Snell's respect for Halberg shines through half a century on: "He was looked up to by everyone. I felt he had the presence of a champion in the village, just like (running legends) Emil Zatopek and Herb Elliott.

"He had great status and I enjoyed being around him."

Halberg won gold at the 1962 Empire Games in Perth, having taken four world records the previous year.He was knighted in 1988 and received the Order of New Zealand eight years ago.

Biography: Murray Halberg

* Born in Eketahuna in July 1933.

* Among the highest profile athletes in the celebrated coach Arthur Lydiard's training group, churning out high mileage around the hills of west Auckland which became a template for middle- and long-distance running arund the world.

* Became New Zealand's first sub-four-minute miler and in 1958, having won gold in the three miles at the Empire Games that year, was named New Zealand Sportsman of the Year.

* Spearheaded setting up of Halberg Trust in 1963 to support children with disabilities to be active in sport, recration and leisure. It remains in place today, as the Halberg Disability Sport Foundation.

How we did it

This list was drawn up by expert Herald and Radio Sport journalists from our team covering the Rio Olympics.

It wasn't easy, partly because of the number of fantastic feats over the last century or so and partly because of the difficulty of comparing performances across sports and eras.

The first ground rule was that only gold medallists would be considered. That was tough considering the likes of Nick Willis (silver, 2008), Dick Quax (silver, 1976), Paul Kingsman (bronze, 1988) and Bevan Docherty (silver and bronze, 2004 & 2008) provided some of our most memorable Olympic moments.

We also agreed potential success in Rio wouldn't be taken into account. The list was also restricted to the Summer Olympics, otherwise Annelise Coberger, our only Winter Olympics medallist may have featured quite prominently.

Each member of the panel wrote their own list before we came together to thrash it out five at a time. It was a head-scratcher, but in a good way because it was a celebration of success.

List so far

No 25: Alan Thompson
No 24: Norman Read
No 23: Ted Morgan

No 22: Sir Russell Coutts
No 21: Paul MacDonald
No 20: Hamish Bond and Eric Murray
No 19: Rob Waddell
No 18: Bruce Kendall
No 17: Mahe Drysdale

No 16: Hamish Carter

- NZ Herald

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