Last night's 1500m race at the Millennium Institute on Auckland's North Shore exemplified raw passion in New Zealand sport. It involved Nick Willis' attempt to set an "A" qualifying mark for August's track and field world championships in Moscow.

The Beijing Olympic silver medallist did not better the required mark of 3m 35s - he ran 3m 36.51s with pacemaker support - but the 29-year-old continues to revel in his role as New Zealand's unofficial athletics ambassador, even if there is yet to be an obvious candidate to pass the baton to in the next generation. Even Willis' warm-up sprints were at a pace which made the mind and waistline boggle. They were almost enough to convince those of a more convex than concave stature, like this writer, to feel guilty about a diet which includes steak 'n' cheese pies. Almost.

Ever the professional, Willis acknowledged the support of a crowd probably in excess of 500. He made a special effort to thank the children by doing a lap of honour with them, offering advice as he went. No doubt Willis considers this good practice. He and wife Sierra are expecting their first child in June.

The event was something for the sporting purist to enjoy. There was an absence of the hoopla which window dresses most modern sporting events, like using flame-throwers when someone hits a Twenty20 six or horses galloping around a rugby field to try to manufacture a modern 'crusade'. The security budget was also inversely proportionate to that of Eden Park.


An indecipherable PA system crackled out a few details but the crowd was more interested in brimming next to lane eight to cheer on Willis and his fellow runners striding down the home straight. Try doing that at an Olympic Games. Willis described it as being like a cross-country race running through the crowd and thanked them for cutting off the perils of head wind.

The event was also an opportunity for Willis to thank Sir John Walker. Walker attended the race and Willis caught up with him afterwards.

"I respect him and his coach Arch Jelley greatly. Hopefully things like this continue to show the baton is being passed to the next generation. There's been a gap, and hopefully I can pass it on to one of these young fellas to bring some satisfaction and joy to John after his health issues."

This is the fifth race of Willis' current tour after lining up at Christchurch, Wellington, Wanganui and Palmerston North. He will not compete in the April Fool's Day Queen St mile but turns his attention to the Sydney Track Classic next weekend where he will again push to break the 3m 35s world championship qualification mark.