A life-long interest in running has led Timaru Courier reporter Chris Tobin to write a history of the sport in New Zealand. He talks about his new book Runners in Black: The Early Years
“Because the topic is so big especially with the era of Murray Halberg and Peter Snell, then John Walker, Rod Dixon, Dick Quax, Lorraine Moller, Nick Willis and many others – I’ve had to concentrate on a particular period,” Chris Tobin says.
“So I’ve confined it to the start of organised running in New Zealand in the late 1860s through to the 1950 Empire Games in Auckland.”
The book provides an overview of middle- and long-distance running from 880 yards (800m) and distances above throughout those years.
“When European settlers arrived they brought their sports with them – professional running was one.
“An enormous amount of gambling went on in those days with pro runners earning up to one hundred pounds for one race, a fortune in those times.”
“There was a fair bit of skulduggery as well.”
Mr Tobin, a former New Zealand representative runner himself, said the first world record probably set in New Zealand in any sport was established by an English professional, Frank Hewitt, running a half-mile stretch in Riccarton Rd, Christchurch, in 1871.
“To do it he had to evade a drunk who tried to run with him. At the finish he collapsed and was carried into a hotel. After being revived he celebrated with champagne.
“These early years were colourful. Every one-horse town had their own annual sports. In Lyttelton, for example, once a year the central streets would be shut off for running events such as a single women’s sprint and a married men’s one-mile.
“Sailors had their own race, too, over 440 yards [402m] with first prize five gallons of beer. The second-placegetter wasn’t overlooked. He got two dozen bottles of beer.”
Timaru and South Canterbury led the way helping to establish the New Zealand Amateur Athletics Association.
“The amateurs eventually ruled the roost but there were pre-World War 1 professional runners in New Zealand who were among the best in the world and who have since been forgotten. Their stories are recorded in the book.”
Mr Tobin said the evolution of training methods, the rise of athletics and harrier clubs and the “amateur only” Olympic Games were included, as well as some social history.
“In the 1930s, women harriers started on a very small scale, but unlike today, through the period of the book, due to the conventions of the time, women did not compete in middle- or long-distance running.
“The stories of all the leading runners of the period such as Jack Lovelock and another prominent Timaru Boys’ High School old boy, Pat Boot, are covered.”
World War 2 denied Boot, an Empire Games champion, “a chance to win at the Olympics. He was certainly capable of it. Tragically he died soon afterwards serving in the war” Mr Tobin said.
“Lovelock is well remembered today, and justifiably so.
“His 1500m win at the 1936 Berlin Olympics really put then little-known New Zealand, population less than million, on the global stage. People who had never heard of the place did after that.”