New Zealand's Greatest Olympians - Number 13: Sir John Walker

By Brenton Vannisselroy

We're counting down New Zealand's 25 greatest Olympians. Today, runner Sir John Walker.
Relief came before joy when John Walker won the 1976 Olympic 1500 metres title in Montreal. Photo / File
Relief came before joy when John Walker won the 1976 Olympic 1500 metres title in Montreal. Photo / File

Gold: 1500m, Montreal, 1976

Olympic gold at the 1976 Montreal Games was the crowning achievement for John Walker in a remarkable international running career spanning nearly 20 years.

Following in the footsteps of Jack Lovelock and Peter Snell, Walker arrived as New Zealand's third great miler at the 1974 Commonwealth Games in Christchurch.

Walker ran the second fastest 800m by a New Zealander to claim bronze before playing a leading role in a historic 1500m final.

He dipped almost a second under Jim Ryun's 1967 world record in a time of 3:32.5s, but had to settle for the silver medal behind Tanzania's Filbert Bayi.

Walker beat Bayi the next year, when he entrenched himself as a track and field star.

In Gothenburg on August 12, 1975, Walker became the first man to run under 3:50s for the mile. His world record would stand for four years.

Due to an African boycott, Bayi was not in Montreal for the Olympics in 1976, leaving Walker as the overwhelming favourite for the 1500m title at his first Games.

There were a few worries after he failed to advance beyond the first round of the 800m, but Walker was dominant in his favoured event.

He won his heat comfortably, before winning a tight semifinal to secure a place in the nine-man final on July 31.

In the absence of Bayi, who was a renowned front-runner, the 1500m final was slow with a 62-second opening lap.

Walker then followed Ireland's Eamonn Coghlan to the front of the field and Coghlan led for the next couple of laps before the tall Aucklander with the flowing locks made his move.

Walker was never caught after taking the lead with around 300m remaining, claiming gold in a time of 3:39.17s, ahead of Belgian Ivo Van Damme and Paul-Heinz Wellmann of West Germany.

Walker told olympic.org.nz his first emotion was relief.

"That came before the joy. To have been favourite and to have lived up to everyone's expectations, including mine. The relief was fantastic," Walker said.

"They can break your world records, but they can never take away your Olympic gold medal."

His international career continued for another 14 years, but he never again reached the heights of 1975 and 1976.

After an injury prevented him from attending the 1978 Commonwealth Games, politics meant he couldn't defend his Olympic title in Moscow in 1980.

But he did make one more Olympic appearance, finishing a creditable eighth in the 5000m in Los Angeles in 1984.

Biography: John Walker

* Attended two Olympics (1976, 1984) and four Commonwealth Games (1974, 1982, 1986, 1990)
* New Zealand sportsman of the year in 1975 and 1976 and sportsman of the 1970s
* Inducted into New Zealand Sports Hall of Fame in 1990
* Knighted in 2009

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
No 14: The 1976 men's hockey team

- NZ Herald

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