We're counting down New Zealand's 25 greatest Olympians. Today, the rowing eight who won gold in 1972.

• Gold: Rowing eight, Munich, 1972

How you rank New Zealand's gold medal performances is a subjective business, but in one respect the rowing eight's victory on the Feldmoching course stands alone.

Not so much for what happened on the water, as the eight produced a stellar performance to dominate their final, but what transpired after the race.

A year earlier, New Zealand had won the European title, which was effectively a world championship. Some of those rowers will privately argue that was a finer display than they achieved in Munich, but then again Olympic success has an extra cache attached to it.

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The eight included old sweats such as Wybo Veldman and John Hunter, who had been in the eight beaten into fourth by 1.3s by the Soviet Union four years earlier.

"We were hot favourites but the wheels fell off," Veldman recalls. "We should have won it, finished fourth, got nothing, a terrible experience."

They vowed it wouldn't happen next time.

Dick Joyce, who had won gold in the coxed four at Mexico, also in 1968, was in the eight too.

That European championship win told the New Zealanders plenty. They beat the East Germans by .42s with the old USSR six seconds back in third.

"The critics said 'you'll never do it twice in a row'," Veldman said. "But they (East Germany) panicked and changed their crew. I think that 1971 (East German) crew was better than 1972."

New Zealand had an unchanged eight from 1971, including cox Simon Dickie.

The bossed the final, a length clear at halfway and the win was never in doubt. They clocked 6min 08.94s, almost three seconds ahead of the United States, with East Germany fractions of a second back in third.

Satisfaction was immense. Then a special moment.

They stood on the dais to receive their medals from International Olympic Committee president Avery Brundage, a staunch defender of the amateur ethos, who saw the embodiment of that philosophy in the New Zealanders.

The national anthems followed and, for the first time in Olympic history, the strains of God Defend New Zealand rather than God Save the Queen rang out.

"We were bawling like babies," Veldman said. "Totally unexpected. Awesome."

A final word for their coach Rusty Robertson, a man who had a special ability to inspire his charges like few others.

"He was a brilliant coach," Veldman said.

"I look at him, Arthur Lydiard, Lois Muir (netball) and the Needle, Fred Allen (rugby), all incredible people who were able to motivate those in their charge to do wonderful things."

Rowing New Zealand has put its emphasis on small boats in recent years, with considerable success. However both men's and women's eights will be in Rio, the women for the first time.

Not a moment too soon, says Veldman, of the return of the silver fern to Olympic eights racing.

They have big boots to fill.

Biography: The Munich eight

Two of the 1972 crew, Wybo Veldman and John Hunter, had been in the 1968 New Zealand eight which finished fourth in Mexico City.

A year earlier the same crew from Munich had won the European title, and some maintain that was a greater performance than the Olympic final.

Their victory marked the first time God Defend New Zealand had been played at an Olympic Games. Tears rolled down the cheeks of brawny men.

The win was seen as a triumph for the amateur ways of sport over the professional, state-sponsored programmes of eastern Europe.

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 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 15: Sir Murray Halberg
No 14: The 1976 men's hockey team
No 13: Sir John Walker
No 12: Ian Ferguson
No 11: Sarah Ulmer
No 10: Jack Lovelock
No 9: Blyth Tait
No 8: Barbara Kendall