Editorial: Olympians lift nation's medal bar to new heights

Peter Burling and Blair Tuke celebrate after winning the gold medal in the Men's 49er class. Photo / Getty Images
Peter Burling and Blair Tuke celebrate after winning the gold medal in the Men's 49er class. Photo / Getty Images

After a nervous start, we got there. Yesterday New Zealand achieved its record haul of medals, eclipsing 1988 in Seoul and London four years ago.

Of course, a record tally was predicted, but the first week gave plenty of reason to chastise ourselves for counting chickens. But this week the predictions began to come thrillingly true.

From Mahe Drysdale's knife-edge victory in the single sculls last weekend and Lisa Carrington's 200m K1 triumph on Tuesday, to Peter Burling and Blair Tuke taking the gold in 49er sailing with a race to spare, the national flag has flown high at Rio.

Starting with Eric Murray and Hamish Bond's win in the pairs, it is striking that all four golds so far have been won in boats and three were repeating their feats of four years ago. It says much about the country's sporting and leisure preferences today and the efforts of clubs and schools where competitive rowing and sailing are encouraged.

But in some ways the silver medals at these Games may be just as memorable.

The women's sevens rugby team, Valerie Adams' grace in defeat by a final throw just when she thought her third gold was in the bag, and yesterday the extraordinary feat of the women's 470 pair, Jo Alleh and Polly Powrie, who overcame two disqualifications earlier in the series to finish second. With a little more luck they undoubtedly would have repeated their gold in 2012.

Then there was Molly Meech and Alex Maloney's silver in the 49erFX and Sam Meech taking a bronze in the Lasers. It has been another glorious Games for our sailing.

It already seems an age since the unexpected silver medals won by shooter Natalie Rooney and slalom kayaker Luuka Jones last week.

It is the unexpected that makes sport so captivating and cruel. If Lisa Carrington was disappointed to settle for bronze in the K1 500 yesterday, she has the consolation of becoming our first woman to win two medals at the same Olympics and only the eighth New Zealander to do so.

One of them, of course, was Peter Snell. It's still hardly possible to discuss our Olympians without mentioning his name. It always raises the wistful hope that we might win medals on the running track again.

Track athletics is still the premier Olympic sport and usually produces its most memorable figure. Usain Bolt bestrode Rio again this week. But for a long time middle distance running had as much glamour as the sprints, at least in New Zealand eyes. Snell, Halberg, Walker, Dixon and Quax left a legacy that ought to have inspired and guided later generations. Perhaps it is still possible.

Meanwhile, Timaru builder Tom Walsh became the first New Zealander to take a medal in the men's shot put yesterday. His bronze is all the sweeter for the fact that he is a rarity these days: a top-flight international athlete who still does a regular job. It is surprising that despite all the jumping and throwing we see, Walsh is our first male in nearly 90 years to win a medal in any field event.

A record tally at Rio is a credit to all who worked, trained, coached, organised and funded our team, and it is not over yet.

- NZ Herald

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