Michele Hewitson Interview: Dick Quax

By Michele Hewitson

Dick Quax has morphed from legendary '70s athletics star to 21st century Super City councillor. Photo / Greg Bowker
Dick Quax has morphed from legendary '70s athletics star to 21st century Super City councillor. Photo / Greg Bowker

Dick Quax said, after almost an hour: "Oh, I'm not that interesting."

Lots of people say this, but they say it in a coy sort of way which indicates your cue to disagree, and really means that they think they are terribly interesting, and so should you. Also, they say it before you interview them. But he really meant it. He said, "It was a surprise when you called me, actually. Because I thought, 'Well, why would she want to interview me?"'

That was pushing it a bit, so I said: "Oh, you did not." He said, "Yeah. Seriously. I was kind of surprised." Seriously, I think he was and I was kind of surprised at that.

He has long had a reputation for being prickly, and a bit full of himself, but he was very nice to me even when I asked him why he was so prickly and if he had ever been a bit full of himself. If he was being Dick Quax, the politician, he did rather well.

He was sworn in to the Auckland Council in early June and has just made his maiden speech, in which he came out against the "compact city" idea, part of the Auckland plan, which he gets very hot under the collar about.

I idiotically asked, so no doubt deserved his councillor's spiel, about land prices being pushed up and how people are better off living on plots of land and not in apartments and how it's "not the New Zealand way".

This is Dick Quax, the right-wing local body politician. He twice stood for Parliament for Act, and so obviously wanted to be an MP. He was on the old Manukau City Council for three terms; ran for mayor there and lost to Len Brown; stood for the new Auckland Council and lost, but got in on the byelection called after Jami-Lee Ross was elected an MP.

He has had his spats with Brown - he and Ross went after him over the mayoral credit card, which resulted in that face-slapping episode - so he'll probably be sticking it to him again now. He said, "Len and I have always had a very good professional working relationship." I bet they hate each other's guts, really, but there's no point asking. "I can get on with anyone, Michele."

Yes, well, even without all this getting on, I'd have thought being a local body politician was very boring after being the fastest runner (over 5000m at least) in the world, but he said: "Actually, people think being a runner is kind of boring."

Which might make runners at least as peculiar as local body politicians. He once said, about running, that "you end up thinking only about yourself". It must be difficult to unlearn being a selfish person (and being a famous one, too, no doubt). I thought this might account for the fact that he is on his third marriage - he points out he has been married to his "current" wife for 20 years next month.

He says he just doesn't know whether difficulties with fame or selfishness contributed to the end of his other two marriages. "I don't think it's just sport. I think it's a lot of other fields, whether it's the arts or business or politics, I think, you know, if you're driven towards success ..." Fair enough. He's hardly the only successful person to have more than a couple of marriages.

But there is the fawning. I asked if all that adulation went to his head and he said that, oh, probably and how could it not? I've asked a lot of sportspeople that question and not one of them has admitted it, so I do think you have to admire his honesty.

He has not enjoyed universal admiration. He was once described, in a 1988 Metro article, as having a reputation for being pompous, irascible and brash. He said, "Gosh! 1988!" And, who regarded him that way? The public, presumably. He said, "Well, as you probably know, the way that you're perceived by the public changes. Once I got involved in politics, I was no longer Dick Quax, the runner. I was Dick Quax, the local body politician."

He hasn't changed all that much. The runner was turfed out of a Commonwealth Games village for writing a critical newspaper column. So much for being one big happy family. He has always been, he said dryly, "opinionated".

The Dutch are like that, he thinks. In what other ways might he be Dutch? "The other day I bought myself a pair of slippers and I bought cheap ones and my wife said, 'Well, that's because you're Dutch.' I think the Dutch have a reputation, like the Scots, for being frugal." And is he frugal? "I like to think of myself as reasonably frugal." I think that is pretty honest too: He said the Herald could pay for the coffee.

He has been causing trouble already at the council. "No. I haven't caused any trouble," he said.

What about those poor peace children? A pair of fresh-faced kids turned up at the council to talk about Auckland's becoming "a city of peace" and what did they get? Councillor Dick Quax sneering through his moustache. The thing was a "boondoggle", he said. A boondoggle - "Do you like that word?" - he felt the need to point out is "doing useless and unnecessary work".

Oh, that was the media, stirring things up, he said. "And I think maybe one of the councillors. No, no. I thought people were extraordinarily polite to them."

His idea of what is extraordinarily polite could mean not saying what he really thought, which is, surely, that the idea of a peace city is just silly. "It's an unnecessary distraction."

He is 63. He has of course, grown into himself, or readjusted his expectations in the way that people who had to deal with a degree of public adulation at an early age eventually have to do.

I've assumed, of course, that you know who Dick Quax is. That we all know he won silver at the 1976 Olympics in the 5000m and at the 1970 Commonwealth Games in the 1500m and held the world record for 5000m for three decades from 1977. The photographer, on the way to take his picture, popped in to tell a mate, a runner in his late 20s, that he was going to photograph Dick Quax. His mate reeled off the most famous Quax running statistic. This is the sort of thing runners know but still, it was a long time ago, in 1977, that he set that 5000m world record at 13 minutes, 12. 86 seconds.

Is he interesting? It's not a bad question. The answer depends a bit on which Dick Quax you're interested in: the famous runner (although never quite as famous as Sir Peter Snell or Sir John Walker, because, probably, he never got that gold); a glamorous figure in the 70s when our runners were glamorous figures - in a sweaty, long-haired way.

He still puts on a quite amazing smile when he has his picture taken. It's the one that he's obviously put on, because it is so obviously put on, for 40-odd years of posing for pictures.

This adds to the sense that there is something peculiar about going to interview Dick Quax. Which one are you going to see? Which one would you want to see? The runner, of course. And you'd think this would, after all this time, be more than a little annoying. It's like telling someone you're very interested in who they were and what they were doing when they were in their 20s, but now that they're 63, and doing important, if boring, work as a public servant, sorry, not so much. But he really doesn't seem to mind - although perhaps when he says he's not that interesting, he means now.

He is wearing a tiny 1976 Olympic silver medallist's lapel badge. He's proud of it. "I quite like it. It's understated and it's quite nice. And if people want to take a close look at it they can see that it's something to do with the Olympics." And do they? "No, not really!"

Earlier, an English tourist interrupted to ask why he was being photographed. Oh, he's famous, I said. Yes, she said, but what is he famous for? We told her and she looked at him for a little while and then said: "When did you do it?"

"Oh," he said, laughing, "a long time ago. Not last week, that's for sure. When I was a young man."

When he was a young man ... All of the pictures were of him in shorts and singlets. He was wiry, as runners are, a series of sharpened bits of body topped with an enormous moustache.

He had longish hair then and it's still a bit longer than you generally see on men in very conservative suits. He says he's due a hair cut and thanks for reminding him. He didn't mind a bit of stick over why he's stuck with that mo, once the almost obligatory accessory of the 70s runner; now about the most hopeful thing you could say about it is that the attachment must be nostalgic.

He says he did shave it off once but his wife "... she who must be obeyed ... ordered it back on again".

It has shrunk rather; it used to be enormous. "Oh, somewhat bigger, but that was the fashion in those days. How old are you, Michele? Yes, well, you're probably too young to know what the fashion was in the 1970s." Yes, well, that is shameless flattery. I remember love beads as well as he does.

It seems incredible now to think that he wore love beads, but not as incredible as it does to think that he smoked dope. He looked a bit green about the gills at being reminded. He may have even become a bit prickly.

He says he is embarrassed now that he ever smoked it. But, how silly. He was a young man, I said. He was allowed some fun. He said he was 27 and ought to have known better and that he never liked it anyway. Goodness, what on Earth can he have been like when he was stoned? This is impossible to imagine. He got a bit cross at this and said, why didn't I ask him what he was like when he was drunk?

I can't imagine that either. But then, I still find it hard to believe that he is now a public servant. He's been wearing a suit for years and he still looks all wrong in one.

He is so perfectly of his time: the 70s, when runners were stars and wore love beads and magnificent moustaches and smoked dope and were interesting enough to really want to interview in a way that sports stars just aren't any more.

- NZ Herald

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