As a reverential student of New Zealand running history, Nick Willis found a unique place in its pantheon today with bronze in the 1500m at the Rio Olympics.

Willis is the first Kiwi to earn two Games medals in the discipline. At 33-years-old, he is also the oldest to reach the podium in the event, eclipsing Kenyan Kip Keino who was 32 when he took silver in 1972 at Munich.

Willis followed his silver medal at Beijing in 2008 with third behind American Matt Centrowitz and defending Olympic champion Taoufik Makhloufi of Algeria.

The winning time of 3m 50.00s was 24s outside the world record and the slowest since Los Angeles in 1932, but that shouldn't stop Willis' name being engraved in 1500m folklore.

As he suggested in the lead-up to the Games: "This is a blue riband event, one of the hardest in all of sport to succeed at."

His achievement must rank among New Zealand's finest at the 31st Olympiad, regardless of medal colour.


When Jack Lovelock tore away from the field at Berlin's Olympiastadion on August 6, 1936 to win in a world record time of 3m 47.8s, he set a tradition, bordering on obsession, for New Zealand sport.

Willis has carried on the Lovelock torch in an era where he has dealt with, and repeatedly spoken out against, the scourge of doping acting as an invisible foe.

Sixteen Kiwi men have competed in the 1500m discipline at the Olympics, delivering three gold, one silver and now three bronze medals.

Sir Peter Snell conquered at the 1964 Tokyo Games. Wearing singlet '466', a garment recently returning to the national consciousness with Te Papa's interest, he scythed through the field.

"I was known for a race-winning blow to opposition," Snell said. "But that's only possible when you have the fitness to be cruising and waiting to turn it [the power] on. That's what being well trained is all about in endurance. You float along at a fast pace but have reserves for the finish."

Like Snell, Willis chose his moment to strike, just as he did in Beijing.

Sir John Walker was the last New Zealand 1500m winner at Montreal in 1976. He seized his chance with open arms and flowing locks.

Unlike Walker, Willis achieved his milestone with jostling elbows and a short back 'n' sides.

Nick Willis competes during the Men's 1500m race at the 2016 Rio Olympics. Photo / Photosport
Nick Willis competes during the Men's 1500m race at the 2016 Rio Olympics. Photo / Photosport

New Zealand had experienced a 32-year medal hiatus until Willis emerged from the Hutt Valley early this century. He missed the Athens final, before working his way from sixth into a plum position on the Beijing home straight. Tenacity brought him home third before being elevated a place when 'champion' Rashid Ramzi was exposed as a drug cheat.

Lovelock, Snell and Walker have provided stimulus to this generation but Willis has been the saviour. To complement his success, New Zealand had three athletes in the heats of an Olympics for the first time with the selection of Hamish Carson and Julian Matthews, the training partners he mentored.

Six of the best

Jack Lovelock

Berlin 1936

PB 3:47.8

Lovelock beat a quality field in front of German Fuhrer Adolf Hitler in Berlin, breaking the world record in the final to take gold. It was New Zealand's first athletics gold.

Peter Snell
Rome 1960
PB 3:37.6
Snell successfully defended the 800m title he won four years earlier in Rome and then underlined his class by blitzing the field in the 1500m, winning by 1.5s.

John Davies
Tokyo 1964
PB 3:39.6
Davies finished third behind Snell in Tokyo, marking the first time New Zealand had won medals in the same Olympic event. He was later NZOC president.

Rod Dixon
Munich 1972
PB 3:33.89
Dixon first gained fame as a middle-distance runner, winning bronze in the 1500m in Munich, before moving to longer distances. He won the 1983 New York Marathon.

John Walker
Montreal 1976
PB 3:32.4
Walker lived up to his favourite tag in Montreal in the absence of Filbert Bayi. The first man to go under
3m 50s for the mile and first to run 100 sub-four minute miles.

Nick Willis
Beijing 2008
Rio 2016
PB 3:29.66
Originally placed third in Beijing but received the silver (in 2011) after winner Rashid Ramzi failed a drugs test. He triumphed yesterday by again choosing the perfect moment to accelerate on the home straight.