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40 years on, Walker still the one

Opinion Piece

I don’t remember too much about 1976.

I know my Elgin School standard 2 teacher was Miss Monk, Lisa Bound was the prettiest girl in my class and Bill Osborne was the greatest rugby player in the world.

I know that wearing Stubbies could get the snot beaten out of you, you’d get change out of 10 cents for an ice block and a funny little fellow with jowls the size of saddle bags, and who my dad referred to as “Piggy”, ran the country.

But if you’d told me that 1976 was the year the Eagles released Hotel California; that Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak created the Apple Computer Company; that Agatha Christie died; and that One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest won the Oscar for best picture, I’d raise my eyebrows and reply: “Is that a fact?”

My most vivid recollection of 1976, however, did not involve a Swedish pop group, the world’s first bionic man or holding a Tom Thumb firecracker in my hand while it went off. 1976, to an eight-year-old with the lofty aspirations of scoring a try in Saturday morning rugby and reaching the top branch of a tree down the end of my street, was the year of John Walker.

Snell. Todd. Loader. Ulmer. Ferguson. You can argue until your face turns electric blue and a herd of cows arrive home about who is New Zealand’s greatest Olympian but to me John Walker’s 1500m victory at the 1976 Montreal Olympics reigns supreme — even 40 years on.

Why? For the same reason the 1978 All Blacks and the All Whites’ 1982 World Cup campaign still top my sporting memories list.

Because I lived each televised step of their dream as it happened. Each try, each goal, each victory — I felt a part of it. And I get cuddled by warm fuzzies every time I think of it.

I saw all 18 games of the All Blacks’ Grand Slam Tour of Britain and Ireland in ’78 — each one live in the early hours of the morning. My dad would wake up me and my brother, or if it was a weekend, sometimes we’d try to defeat sleep and stay up all night. I usually lost. We watched the matches with the lights off, encased in blankets, dipping gingernut biscuits into hot mugs of Bournvita.

I remember the roof at 15 Waverley Street trembling as Bryan McKechnie kicked a 78th-minute penalty to defeat Wales 13-12, the collective sighs of relief after seeing off Ireland 10-6, trudging back to bed after Munster stunned us 12-zip.

I can enjoy Walker’s golden run with similarly sentimental clarity (and without the need for YouTube). Dressed like a panther but with the speed of a gazelle. Peter Frampton hair cascading behind him. An explosion of speed when he decided to sort the men from the boys 300m from home. Raised arms of victorious relief from shoulders carrying the expectations of 3.11 million people.

I was there — admittedly, 14,604km away and screaming “go” multiple times at a 20-inch TV screen — but I was there.

Today the 2016 Olympics were officially opened in Rio. I’m there again, this time in front of a 46-inch plasma, with an eight-year-old, blanket-cocooned mini-me by my side.

Sparrow-fart live viewings will be replaced by My Sky recordings and fast-forwarding because somehow time has sped up since the 1970s and I just don’t have enough of it to waste.

We will watch athletes who would test positive to performance-enhancing substances like blood-sweating hard work, sublime talent and rain, hail, or shine seven-days-a-week dedication.

We will also probably watch drug cheats.

We won’t see darts, snooker or hop-scotch. But there will be golf, ping pong and women with evil clown smiles dancing in a pool. And who knows? In eight or 12 years time, medals may well be given out for gaming.

There will be 10,300 athletes from 207 nations competing in 308 events — 4200 athletes, 115 nations and 110 events more than 1976.

New Zealand will probably win a record number of gold medals and at least one of those will be by an athlete who has to stand while doing it.

People will tell me the Olympics is now a fast-food outlet. That its motto “citius, altius, fortius” (faster, higher, stronger) has become diluted by drugs, commercialism and saturation. I won’t care. Golf may well be a dubious inclusion but it won’t stop me from symbolically high-fiving Lydia Ko each time she makes a birdie.

The jury is still out on sevens but I’ll punch the air if SBW and Co clean up Fiji, South Africa or England in the final. In fact, every time the silver fern appears on the TV, me and my eight-year-old sidekick will be cheerleaders.

These people are all supreme athletes in their own right. They got there because they are the best and most of them will have done it through immense personal sacrifices Joe Public will probably never fully appreciate.

For those sports that traditionalists quite rightly recognise as truly embodying the Olympic ideal, there will still be that one-in-four-yearly opportunity to reach the zenith of their craft and etch their names in the fabric of New Zealand sporting greatness.

Just like John Walker did.

Chris Taewa