Today, the Herald starts a countdown of New Zealand’s 25 greatest Olympians. Scroll to the bottom to find out how we came up with the list.

Gold: Kayaking, K-1 1000m, Los Angeles, 1984
Gold: Kayaking, K-4 1000m, Los Angeles, 1984

Alan Thompson is the name you know and the face you recognise, but perhaps the one you can't quite put your finger on. His relatively low profile belies his Olympic greatness.

Thompson was part of New Zealand's golden era of flatwater canoe racing in the 1980s. One of just 10 New Zealanders to have won two or more gold medals, Thompson and Grant Bramwell have perhaps lived in the shadows of their more well-known team-mates Ian Ferguson and Paul MacDonald.

The New Zealand K-4 1000m crew back on shore after their 1984 Olympic win. From left, Alan Thompson, Grant Bramwell, Paul McDonald and Ian Ferguson. Photo / Ross Land
The New Zealand K-4 1000m crew back on shore after their 1984 Olympic win. From left, Alan Thompson, Grant Bramwell, Paul McDonald and Ian Ferguson. Photo / Ross Land

However, Thompson had a huge influence on the way the kiwi kayakers trained and prepared for what would eventually become our most successful Olympic games and the record haul of four gold medals in a single sport in 1984.


Thompson was a promising rugby player and swimmer at Gisborne Boys' High, but took up surf lifesaving and paddling in 1977 to supplement his swimming fitness and was hooked.

After being part of a small New Zealand contingent at the boycott-affected 1980 Moscow Olympics, Thompson went on to become the first New Zealander to win a world championship medal in 1982, laying the platform for what was to come in Los Angeles two years later.

Thompson and his coach John Grant were disciples of the Lydiard training method - devised by running great Arthur Lydiard - adapting it to the needs of a kayakyer. The method was taken on board by the rest of the team, and by the time Thompson took the start line in the K-1 1000m at the 1984 Games, New Zealand had already won two gold medals on Lake Casitas.

Thompson dominated the field from the start, nosing in front by the 200-metre mark and completing a powerful display to win by almost a boat length. Hours later, he was back on the water with Ferguson, MacDonald and Bramwell in the K-4 1000m, their blades again slicing through the water to take the fourth gold medal of the regatta by a nose.

Thompson has remained active in the sport since those heady days, working as a coach, selector, manager and board member; although like his crewmates from 1984, there have been some fractious moments with the canoe racing hierarchy.

Thompson will also have an imprint on the Rio 2016 team. Lining up in Thompson's old event, the K-1 1000m, will be Marty McDowell, who was initially coached by the legend as a raw 18-year old a few years ago.

Biography: Alan Thompson

• A hooker for Gisborne Boys' High, Thompson was a good enough rugby player to be selected for the North Island under-18 team.

• He reached the final of the K-2 1000m with Geoff Walker at the 1980 Olympics in Moscow before winning double gold in Los Angeles four years later.

• Believing his young paddlers weren't working hard enough, Thompson returned to racing in 1993, winning the national K-1 1000m title.

• He resigned from the board of Canoe Racing NZ in 2010 over the axing of Paul MacDonald and Ian Ferguson as national coaches.

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 own 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.