Peter Snell came from Dallas, Russell Coutts came from Valencia ... and Colin Meads came from Te Kuiti.

And after a ceremony at Old St Paul's in Wellington to mark the conversion of their former honours into knighthoods, the sporting greats stepped out as Sir Peter, Sir Russell and Sir Colin.

Plain John Key was the odd one out.

But the delighted recipients and their families had the Prime Minister to thank for their new status.

He was responsible for the mass "redesignation" of 72 people's honours - not an investiture, the protocol experts insisted - by reinstating titular honours.

The former Principal and Distinguished Companions of the New Zealand Order of Merit were redesignated as knights and dames.

The formal redesignation took place on August 1, but without the pomp and tradition of yesterday's ceremony, the new titles had not stuck.

One by one, the men knelt for the classical "dubbing" - a touch to each shoulder with a sword - from the Governor-General, Sir Anand Satyanand. The women received handshakes.

The Warehouse founder and philanthropist Sir Stephen Tindall was the only recipient to have the added honour of a public protest.

The solo demonstrator carried a big red sign saying, "Sir Stephen Tindall, for service to the People's Republic of China".

Former Labour Cabinet minister Dame Margaret Shields looked proud of her title. She accepted it despite private pressure from former prime minister Helen Clark.

Helen Clark's predecessor as PM, Dame Jenny Shipley, was there, as was Jeremy Wells - TV's Newsboy - who relinquished the spotlight to his father, Sir John Wells of Auckland, who received his knighthood for services to business and sport.

Sir Harawira Gardiner, who was called Sir Wira on the programme, consulted his family after the ceremony and finally settled on Sir Harawira.