Olympian heights, John Horrocks

Striking Gold: New Zealand Hockey’s Remarkable Victory at the 1976 Olympics
Suzanne McFadden
Mary Egan Publishing, $40.00
ISBN 9780473343729

Striking Gold is the story of one of the great moments in New Zealand’s sporting history. The 1976 Olympics are remembered for John Walker’s win in the 1500 metres. It was also the occasion when the African nations withdrew their teams because the All Blacks were touring apartheid South Africa. These events have tended to overshadow the stunning victory of the New Zealand men’s hockey team. Ranked only seventh in the world at the start of the games, they defeated Australia 1-0 in the final. The two favourites, India and Pakistan, had already been eliminated.

The New Zealanders battled through pool play and reached the semi-finals after beating Spain. The press at home were lukewarm about this result, with comments such as “Hockey Team reaches final four at last.” Suzanne McFadden’s book demonstrates that their win was not so surprising, for this was a group of players who were well-coached, highly skilled, and extremely fit. The story draws on her interviews with them, and she describes each player’s history by tying it to key moments in the tournament. In doing so, she provides an account not only of this team’s progress, but also a history of hockey in New Zealand and legendary figures, such as the Christchurch-based coach Cyril Walter and “Mr Hockey”, Havilah Down.

Members of the team have gone on to very successful careers in a variety of fields. Centre-forward Barry Maister is now on the International Olympic Committee, and other players have included a Rhodes Scholar, an engineer, an architect, senior figures in education and an authority on corporate governance. The talent of this group does much to explain why the book is such a great piece of sports reporting. As each player reflects on his own development and what happened in Montreal, it is clear that these are not people from “the boys done good” or “we still had plenty to work on” school of description.

An episode in the final against Australia rivals the winning kick in the 2011 rugby world cup by “Beaver” (Stephen Donald) or Bert Sutcliffe’s bandaged return from hospital to flay the South African attack in the 1953 Boxing Day test in Johannesburg. With 10 minutes to go in the game, there was a penalty corner. Goalkeeper Trevor Manning rushed out to protect his goal from an Australian strike. Unlike goalkeepers today, he wore only a cloth golf cap and, instead of special turf shoes, he had made do by removing some of the sprigs from his boots. His flimsy pads, which he had to buy himself, were four years old. Like cricket pads, they were reinforced only by thin strips of bamboo and provided little protection against a ball travelling at around 100 miles an hour. Manning saved the goal, but immediately collapsed, his left kneecap shattered. The coach, Ross Gillespie, decided to keep Manning on the field. Manning said afterwards that it hurt like hell, but the adrenalin kept him going. Manning’s display – he even did some knee squats to show the coach he was fine – deserves to be much better-known, but McFadden is also able to recreate the excitement of many of the other tight games, including the 2-1 semi-final win over the Netherlands, in which play extended into the third period of extra time.

New Zealand hockey officials were never able to capitalise on their team’s victory. Although the team, as Olympic champions, were entitled to automatic entry to the 1978 world cup in Argentina, local hockey administrators decided that it would cost too much to send a team there. Apart from this omission, Selwyn Maister recalls that the infrastructure simply wasn’t there to take advantage of the number of kids who wanted to play hockey after 1976. The frustrating aspects of the aftermath of the win included yet another fatal political intervention into sport, the decision by the government of Robert Muldoon to support a boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics. The 1976 champions were not able to defend their title, but the publication of Striking Gold means that there is finally a proper record of their achievement.

John Horrocks is a Wellington poet and reviewer.

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Posted in Non-fiction, Review and Sport
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