A sporting chance, Roger Robinson

Roger Robinson and Anna Rogers review books that document ‘a little-discussed area of women’s endeavour’.


Athletes of the Century: 100 Years of New Zealand Track and Field
Peter Heidenstrom,
GP Publications, $49.95

The world’s first international races for women were probably held at Monte Carlo in 1921. The Wellington Amateur Athletic Club formed its ‘ladies’ section’ in 1922, and added a women’s 100 yards to the New Zealand Championship programme in early 1923. Support within the sport was strong, and overcame resistance from a few officials, and from the British Medical Association, which condemned women’s racing as harmful to ‘their function of reproduction’.

Events for women became an official and permanent part of the Championship programme in 1926, and in 1928 Norma Wilson represented New Zealand at the Olympic Games, one of seventeen nations that accepted the new opportunity. At a time when sport’s decision-makers were male, that is a record which belies any accusation of wilful discrimination. The first country in the world to recognise the political equality of women (argued Sir J Heenan) should do the same in the field of play; and did.

These details, and the conclusion, are from Peter Heidenstrom’s authoritative history of New Zealand athletics, an important book for more than track fans, for whom it is an indispensable delight. Heidenstrom shows that the story of women in athletics was not always smooth, and supplies information, for instance, which historians worldwide of women’s distance running will have to take into account. Although I am familiar with that story, with an intimacy which comes from being married to a significant portion of it, I was not aware that Millie Sampson’s world best marathon time in 1964 – internationally regarded as a milestone – was run as a rejected and unofficial entrant in the Owairaka Marathon; nor that she later ran a faster time on a track, to evade official proscription; nor that the first New Zealand marathon to accept women officially was Rotorua’s Fletcher Marathon as late as 1974, two years after K V Switzer got them wearing numbers at Boston, and well behind the more relaxed British. So New Zealand’s record of leadership has lapses in it.

This is not a trivial matter. For millions of women, running marathons and other events has become a major source of fulfilment and, in many cases, social opportunity. New Zealand has provided important role models, such as Allison Roe and Lorraine Moller, whose stories Heidenstrom tells well; but he also tells of Sampson and of Robin Hames, pioneers who had to argue and cajole and dodge the system to claim the simple right to run.

Heidenstrom also defies convention, received thought and (almost) national faith, by declaring that the greatest athlete m New Zealand history is not Jack Lovelock, Peter Snell or John Walker – the triple star’ of the anthem ‑ but the 1952 Olympic long jump champion and great pentathlete,Yvette Williams Corlett. That fluttered the dovecotes at Mount Smart.

The women’s issue is one example of the significance of good sports history. Sport now occupies a major part of the time, thought and conversation of a substantial portion of the human race. It’s a good idea that it should be documented and discussed knowledgeably and intelligently. The paucity of books which even attempt to write significantly or well about sport leaves a grave gap in New Zealand culture.

Heidenstrom moves into that space in an idiosyncratic and entertaining way. He is that rare beast, a spicy statistician. He is one of the world élite among a slightly batty breed who call themselves ‘track nuts’, and so supplies erudite charts that tell you at a glance who was the third-fastest 100 yards sprinter in New Zealand history up to 1923 (Arthur, later Lord, Porritt); or the third-best long jumper up to 1903 (Sir Peter Buck); or the sixth-best sprinter as at 1965 (Antony Steele, MP). The factual information presented may justly be called encyclopaedic.

But appropriately to his subject, Heidenstrom writes history with energy and irreverence. He is anything but shy about offering opinions. He is acute and fearless on such issues as commercialism, drugs and the shallow trivialisation inflicted on sport by television. He places blades in the rib-cages of many a portly official or selector, and a good few athletes. With an almost passionate undercurrent of feeling, he finds it hard to forgive those who fail to fulfil their physical potential.

His criticisms are openly subjective, the work of a lively journalist, but never arbitrary or spiteful. When he says, to return to the 1993 theme, that ‘Without women, the sport in this country would by now have sunk into total ignominy’, he’s probably wrong, but it’s a challenge worth thinking about. The opinions can seem too punchy and provocative, but that is partly an effect of the sheer scale of his subject – the full range of athletic events over a hundred years, one essay per event, and a sweep-up finale on issues.

He writes well for this constrained form – with colour, wit and adroitness. Shakespeare, the Bible, the Grimm Brothers, Lewis Carroll and many more make unaccustomed appearances in shorts and spikes, and Heidenstrom himself can slip into a mischievously parodic mode. When a New Zealander competes in an early century ‘Varsity Match’ for Cambridge against Oxford, he gets ‘an absolutely spiffing take-off’. There’s plenty of fun as well as facts and figures in this unusual book.

Heidenstrom is a skilled journalist, a spicy raconteur and a compulsive stirrer. He is also compendiously and. as far as I can tell flawlessly informative. It’s a formidable combination. While there is much more to be said by way of serious historical argument, this book is a front-runner, a record-breaker, if not an Olympian, among New Zealand ‘s meagre field of good sports history.


Roger Robinson is writing a second book on the culture of sport. He is married to K V Switzer, who gatecrashed the Boston Marathon in 1967.



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Posted in Gender, Non-fiction, Review, Sport
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