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100 years of athletics

Highlights from the Gisborne Athletic Club's past 100 years

Yvette Williams breaking the long jump world record in Gisborne is one of many highlights from the Gisborne Athletic Club’s past 100 years. Grant Miller reports . . .

It was far from an ordinary athletics meet when Miriam Read competed in the long jump in Gisborne on February 20, 1954.

Childers Road Reserve was the venue for a world-record attempt by Olympic gold medallist Yvette Williams, a big crowd was in attendance and the mark to beat was clear for all to see.

While Miriam, 14, awaited her turn, she watched Williams sprint and soar.

“I still remember where it was, on the grass. She seemed to run for miles. She was focused and jumping out of her skin,” Miriam Swarbrick (nee Read) recalls.

“The crowd was all around. We knew straight away. The crowd went mad.”

Dame Yvette Winifred Corlett (nee Williams) was the first woman from New Zealand to win an Olympic medal. When she claimed gold at Helsinki in 1952, her jump was just shy of the world record held by Francine Blankers-Koen of the Netherlands.

Williams went close to breaking the record in Gisborne on January 9, 1954, and she promised officials at the Gisborne Athletic and Harrier Club that she would be back for another go.

The Gisborne Herald reported that on the side of a specially-prepared jumping pit were two flags — a green one to mark the New Zealand record held by Williams and a red one for the world record.

“In perfect form she sailed through the quiet air. After she had landed and it could be seen even from the packed stand (in which her mother and father shared the tenseness of the occasion) that she had landed beyond the far-off red flag, wave after wave of cheering and hand-clapping burst from the spectators. As for the record-breaker herself, her first reflex action was to jump from the pit and leap into the air . . .”

With a mark of 20 foot, seven and a half inches, Williams had exceeded the red flag by an inch and a half.

“I got second,” Swarbrick adds with a smile.

The Gisborne Athletic Club is in its 100th season and many of its officials and coaches have given up their time season after season.

Eric Hoggins, who had a 50-year coaching career which included mentoring well-performed walker Jim Trowell, still heads to Awapuni Stadium in summer on Wednesday evenings to help out.

Jill Smythe and Harvey Twigley are there, too, and they recall the January meetings that sometimes attracted big names from New Zealand athletics and from overseas.

Athletes such as Rome 1960 Olympic 5000 metres gold medallist Sir Murray Halberg were approachable, obliging and happy to interact with children, Smythe says. Other Olympic gold medallists to grace Gisborne included Sir Peter Snell and Norman Read.

Halberg came on January 8, 1955, for an invitation mile event, finished well ahead of his nearest rival and set a Poverty Bay record.

Read, the 1956 Melbourne Olympic 50-kilometre walk gold medallist, visited Gisborne in 1957, along with Halberg, British Empire and Commonwealth Games multiple gold medallist and shot put and discus thrower Valerie Young (nee Sloper), and Yvette's younger brother and decathlete Roy Williams. Repeatedly snubbed by the Olympic selectors, Roy Williams went on to win the decathlon at the 1966 British Empire and Commonwealth Games in Jamaica.

Readers of The Gisborne Herald were given an insight into the no-fuss approach of Read in dealing with heel skin that was getting too hard and thick.

“I will trim the skin with a pair of scissors and then polish my heel-pads. How will I do that? Simply by fitting a sanding buff into an electric drill and then buffing until I get that smooth, glassy finish on them,” Read said.

Little doubt surrounded who would win the 880 yards handicap at Childers Road Reserve on February 3, 1964, but interest centred on what time Snell would produce.

Snell, who would go on to win double-gold at the Tokyo Olympics that year in the 800m and 1500m, to go with his 800m gold medal from Rome, was challenged by a fan pre-race, The Gisborne Herald reported.

“Peter, I'll bet you a flagon you do 1 min 52 secs at least.”

“No. That would be ridiculous; I suppose I could if I was pushed, but it would be fantastic to try it tonight,” Snell replied.

He then surged past his rivals, clocking 1 min 50.8 secs, breaking the Poverty Bay half-mile record and thrilling a crowd of 5000 people. Top local runner Graham Thomas was second, 16-year-old Willie Koia third, and Gisborne's Allan Parkinson and Allan Saunders — both prolific at Hawke's Bay-Poverty level — were among the also-rans.

The crowd also saw Avis McIntosh equal her New Zealand record in the 80m hurdles, an effort described by The Gisborne Herald as “a mixture of grace, speed, balance and timing”.

Twigley's introduction to the Gisborne Amateur Athletic and Harrier Club was shortly after the 1950 Commonwealth Games in Auckland.

He remembers being impressed by athletes from such countries as Fiji and Nigeria running under the floodlights at Childers Road Reserve.

He joined the club in his first year after leaving school, in 1952.

“I went along with my best mate Bill Fitzgerald, who was interested in middle distance, whereas my interest was in jumping events.

“At the time, there were several more senior athletes than me, notably Ross Meban, Robin Shields and Sam Gribben.

“Most importantly, there were several dedicated people who ran the club and officiated at our weekly Wednesday meetings.”

He reels off a list that includes Bill Carmichael, Jack Jones, Alan Tarr, Peter Scott, Tom Leslie, Stan Parker, Les Barker and Hoggins.

“The officials were most important to the development of athletes like myself.”

Golden age of athletics

Twigley says Gisborne had increasing success at Hawke's Bay-Poverty Bay level as young athletes of his era matured.

“Gisborne held the Tom Parker Shield for most points at the HBPB championships for seven successive years.”

Twigley says he was in his early 20s and “out on the paddock” at the time of the long jump world-record attempt.

“I remember a big fuss and the noise of the crowd.”

The visit of Yvette Williams has not faded from his memory — “especially competing at the same meet”.

He is quick to add he defeated Roy Williams in the 120-yard hurdles.

Smythe was part of a line-up of children excited about the occasion.

“I was taken along with Dad and Mum,” she says.

Smythe enjoyed club trips to such places as Wairoa, Whakatane, Dannevirke and, closer to home, the Te Karaka Sports Day.

“I enjoyed the companionship of the trips away,” she says.

She is pleased to give back to the sport.

“I do believe athletics is the basis for sports — run, jump and throw.”

Gill Wells used to live in Palmerston Road and would walk to athletics. She recalls the buzz of the occasion — a crowd of children of all ages, two or three heats, then finals.

Kath Thomas, a sprinter back in the day, picks up on that theme, that they used to get such large numbers. A club night in November 1960 attracted 66 entrants for shot put, she points out.

However, not everyone was comfortable with women competing in some of the events.

“Kath and I decided we wanted to run in the 400m at the Hawke's Bay-Poverty Bay champs,” Swarbrick says. But they had to fight to make it happen. It went ahead, in the end, but not as part of the official programme.

“It was so different for women competing at that time,” Swarbrick says.

Thomas went on to do well in the distances up to 800m, as well as long jump.

“Miriam and I came through what I call the golden years. It was a beautiful time, right through.”

The club has had various forms over the years.

“In the early days, we used to have cycling and wrestling,” Swarbrick says.

“Cycling was very big,” Thomas adds. “And we trained together on the same track.”

One of Gisborne's better athletes from the past century, sprinter Norma Wilson, went to the 1928 Olympic Games in Amsterdam to compete in the 100 yards for the Dominion. Newspaper reports say she was accorded an enthusiastic send-off.

However, she was controversially denied a place in the final when she was ruled to have come third in her semifinal. The Poverty Bay Herald declared she finished second (others said second equal) but “was placed third through some misunderstanding of the judges”.

Wilson, described by one columnist as winsome, wasn't afraid to clash with officials. Arguing that New Zealand needed cinder tracks, she referred to “stuffed shirt” Olympic officials. And she refused to run at Wellington's Basin Reserve unless she was allowed to run in shorts, as was overseas practice. The practice was soon adopted.

Three prominent athletes from the United States competed in Gisborne in 1931 — sprinter George Simpson, middle-distance runner George Bullwinkle and field exponent Harlow Rothert.

Simpson was the first man to run 100 yards in 9.4 seconds but the record wasn't recognised because he had used starting blocks.

Floodlighting was introduced at Childers Road in 1933.

Club chairman Brian Lee recalls that the 1976 Hawke's Bay-Poverty Bay champs had to be held in Gisborne, following rain. It wouldn't happen now, because Hawke's Bay has an all-weather track, a facility Gisborne still lacks.

Awapuni Stadium became the home of Gisborne athletics in the 1980s.

Lee says that in their first season there, they had to cart trailer-loads of gear there every week.

He says it was an honour for the Gisborne club when Frank Clapperton helped as a starting assistant at the 1990 Commonwealth Games in Auckland.

The coach of New Zealand heptathlon under-18 record holder Maddie Wilson, Terry Lomax, says good athletes often come from smaller centres, because children can engage in many different sports, such as athletics. Places like Gisborne can be a breeding ground for sporting talent.

Wilson left Gisborne Girls' High School last year and is linking up with Lomax in Christchurch while she studies at university.

Athletes from the recent past have included Hosea and Rico Gear, who went on to become All Blacks.

On Wednesday this week, promising athletes of today — such as Jack Sadler, Ruby Sadler and Seven Mapu — were running about.

The club intends to mark its 100 years at its end-of-season prizegiving — a time to celebrate ahead of athletics taking centre stage at the Tokyo Olympics starting in July.

RECORD JUMP: Yvette Williams leaps to a world record in the long jump at Childers Road Reserve in Gisborne on February 20, 1954. Picture from Tairawhiti Museum
HAPPY MEMORIES: Kath Thomas (left) and Miriam Swarbrick recall a golden age of athletics in Gisborne. Swarbrick still has her old running spikes. Picture by Paul Rickard
POPULAR MAN: Peter Snell goes for a light training run at Childers Road Reserve, accompanied by some youngsters. Picture from Gisborne Photo News
RECOGNITION: Norma Wilson receives a Gisborne Amateur Athletic and Harrier Club life membership from president H Forster, 1954. Bill Carmichael holds the microphone. Picture from Tairawhiti Museum