Athletes of the Century Excerpt


100 years of New Zealand track and field


Page 171

Chapter Twenty-three

Why New Zealand did not adopt the standard distance of 80 metres for the first women’s hurdle races I do not know; the other British countries did. But in 1933, when Wellington instituted the first centre championship, the experts were still claiming that any hurdling race was harmful to women, so it may simply have been as a safety measure that the distance was reduced.

So 80yds was the distance when Rona Tong made the first national record in 1935. Hastings was the place for hurdlers in those days, having both Tong and the men’s champion, Frank Sharpley. It was also Tong who won the first championship in 1937. Although it does not appear in the official list today, it was undoubtedly official then, and being Tong’s only title it should, in fairness, be restored.

The time, 12.0s, regained for Tong the record she had lost to the great long-jumper, Edna Munro. Actually it was 11.8s, but because it was a record the NZAAA had a special ruling (20,c, it was) that meant another fifth of a second had to be added – just to be on the safe side. Today’s athletes have it easy.

By beating Munro in the national trial over 90yds at the end of that year, Tong won a place in the Commonwealth Games team for the 80m hurdles. At Sydney she was second in her heat in 12.1s, and in the final did 11.9s for third and the bronze medal. It was one of New Zealand’s first two medals in international women’s competition (the other coming in the high jump) and was more than well deserved because Tong’s best time before leaving home had been 12.7s.

So there was much surprise when Tong and Munro were beaten by Shona Oliphant in the championships a few days later. Maybe that is understandable, though, because the distance was again 90yds and Tong had to change her stride for the third time. Incidentally, Oliphant does not appear in the official list of champions, either. Why not?

Later Tong, Margery Grindrod, and Noeline Gourlay (four times) all set national records. But that was only because overseas performances did not count for the purpose in those days, and Tong’s performance at the 1938 Games carried on unbeaten by a New Zealander until just before the next edition, 12 years later. During that summer of 1950 it would get beaten by no fewer than four athletes.

The first to beat it was Pixie Fletcher, and handsomely. On the rough Hataitai Park track in Wellington she not only put up times of 11.7s and 11.5s (wind assisted) but beat the national champion, June Clare. These two were as different as two hurdlers could be – Fletcher tall and leggy, but strong enough to be one of the three best discus throwers in the country; Clare compact and over a foot shorter, in fact the shortest top-class athlete I can ever remember.

At the national championships there were 10 heats and finals in the men’s and women’s hurdling events, and in every one the record was either equalled or beaten! Gourlay did 11.5s and Clare 11.7s in their heats. Both beat Fletcher in the final in 11.4s and 11.5s, wind assisted, with Janet Shackleton close up in fourth place. Inasmuch as the national record had been 12.0s at the start of the season, and only eight women in the world had ever gone faster than 11.5s, those performances became elevated to the status of near-miracles, and McLean Park to that of a shrine.

All things were not possible to those who made the pilgrimage to Eden Park; but they were to Clare and Shackleton. Up against Strickland of Australia, who would be the next Olympic champion and the one after that, they began by giving her a hard time in the heats. All three recorded 11.4s, a Commonwealth record, while Gourlay and Fletcher finished one-two in the other heat.

Nose in Front
In the final Strickland gained a few inches in the sprint to the first hurdle – not surprisingly since she had already won an Olympic medal for the 100m flat – and those inches were all that won her the race. Eight times she was a nose in front as they rose to the hurdle, and eight times the New Zealanders touched down level with her. In the run-in she won back those vital inches to hold off Clare, with Shackleton third, Gourlay fourth, and Fletcher losing fifth to the other Australian.

For New Zealand it was four of the six finalists, and two of the three medals. The influence of the team coach was well evident. His name was Sharpley.

Both Clare and Shackleton married about a year later and retired. Clare ended her career with a time of 11.5s in Australia, just to show that her other times were perfectly sound, and Shackleton ran Strickland close again in the Christchurch Centennial Games. Had different customs prevailed they might have continued in competition. As it is, their performances would still be the target for succeeding hurdlers to aim at for the next two decades.

Gourlay, who had won five titles in six years. retired too. So did Fletcher, who won no titles and must be counted among the very finest New Zealand athletes who had that misfortune.

Chapter Twenty-Three   171

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Games she reached new levels in each of the three rounds and came fifth in the final, two places ahead of the other New Zealander. Sad to say, Guthrie did not go ahead from there, as I’m certain she had the ability to do. In the next two national championships she was not even a competitor. In 1976 and 1977 she made a brief reappearance for a couple of silver medals. But after that, nothing. The eastern Europeans did not waste athletes like Guthrie.

The ‘other New Zealander’ whom Guthrie beat at the Games was none other than Matthews, making her second comeback. It is worth detailing the first of them, before the 1972 Olympics, to show what an athlete Matthews was. At that stage, remember, she had not run for four years, and the 100m hurdles was new to her experience.

In her first attempt, even if it did have wind assistance, she put up a time of 14.0s. The national record was 14.5s. A week later, again with wind assistance, she did 13.6s. In the next six weeks followed times of 13.5s (wind-assisted), 13.9s (a record), and 13.6s (a handicap race, but otherwise valid). Later there were four more records of 13.9s, 13.7s, 13.6s, and 13.4s.

In her first season of the event Matthews had lowered the record by over a second. Again, as in 1966 and 1967, she was able to press Pam Ryan, Australia’s two-time Olympic medallist, to within a couple of metres. She was selected for the Olympic Games herself, put up her best automatically-timed performance, but got nowhere. The hopped-up Europeans were a second faster again.

Matthews More Capable
Matthews was also more capable than her seventh place at the Commonwealth Games would suggest. Her time for first in the heats was only beaten by two others, and (with the same amount of wind) equalled the time that eventually won the bronze medal. But how many athletes can expect to retire twice and still achieve their best?

If women were once regarded as the weaker sex, women athletes like Gail Swart have changed that idea. (Real strength, of course, is not just about lifting heavy weights.) Until 1975 Swart concentrated on sprinting, winning 10 championship medals including two golds in the 200m. She even picked up a silver medal in the long jump, which could have been her best event, since she cleared nearly 19ft as a 16 year-old beginner before giving it up altogether.

Once Swart turned her attention properly to hurdling she at once equalled Matthews’s hand-timed record – an improvement of 0.8s in one season. But, still unconvinced that she had made the right decision, she went back to sprinting for a year. When finally she got back into hurdling she made the Commonwealth Games team and got fifth. A couple of national titles later she retired, still only 25. Like Lowe, Swart suffered from such an embarrassment of talent that she never really settled down, and therefore never revealed her true capabilities.

After Swart retired the title passed to Terry Genge, who had already been runner-up three times. Genge would never profess herself a sprinter, as Clare, McIntosh, and Stuart were sprinters, and she owed her success to something those three lacked. She was tall – or, rather, long-legged – and thus she founded a new breed of hurdler that New Zealand had not seen before. Lynn Massey and Lyn Stock were of the same breed but, though all three were capable of well under 14s, Stock was the only one who really threatened to invade Matthews territory.

Through perseverance Stock became a fine technician, and through that technique was able to match Matthews’ (hand-timed) national record and beat her automatic times. Indeed Stock twice returned 13.67s, compared with Matthews’ 13.69s. The first time was in the 1985 Pacific Conference Games, where she won the bronze medal. The second was in the 1986 Commonwealth Games, but then she could not get past the semifinals. Why not? Because technique, however perfect, was no defence against opponents who could have made the New Zealand team as sprinters. One of them, in fact, could have broken our 100m record by over half a second.

The only hurdler of recent times with the necessary speed has been Helen Pirovano, from – where else? – Hastings. Already an international hurdler at 17, Pirovano hit the front a clear leader in 1987, when she won the New Zealand senior and Australian junior titles and was second in the Australian Open. In 1989 she was champion of Australia, a solid achievement because over the years Australia has won seven Olympic medals, three of them gold ones.

Pirovano has the fastest time by a New Zealander under any conditions, 13.47s (Wind-assisted), in the semifinals at the 1990 Commonwealth Games. In the final she was eighth in 13.61s and so became the first holder of the national record for automatic timing. She also ran in the 100m, after coming second in the national championship and returning very fast (but wind-assisted) times of 11.50s and 11.52s.

Pirovano, too, is a superb technician, and possibly the world’s fastest hurdler for the height. But there again is the catch – height. We still cannot produce a hurdler with the height and pace of Matthews who also has the technique of Stock or Pirovano, the inspiration of Guthrie, the durability of McIntosh, the fighting qualities of Stuart, the smoothness of Lothian, the nimbleness of Clare, and the zeal of Gourlay.

If we ever do, you will probably find her in the Hastings club – like Rona Tong, Margaret Stuart, and Helen Pirovano. What a trio!

During the 1970s the 400m hurdles became established as an event, but no-one was able to establish the kind of domination that is common in other events. Four different athletes won the first four titles; indeed to date (1992) the 17 titles have been shared by no fewer than eight athletes.

Among the early pioneers I would especially mention Marion Prior, who was the first to bring 60s within reach but gave up athletics after only two more seasons; the incomparable Karen Green; and Yvonne O’Brien, who set a national record and was a leading figure for four years.

Green was in at the start, winning two silver medals, followed by a title in record time in 1978, After dropping out

174   Athletes of the Century

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of sight for several years, she turned up in 1983 running cross-country – well enough to get fourth in the national! In 1988 she made a one-off return to hurdling, and not only won the title again but beat the record she had set 10 years before.

The 400m hurdles used to be called the man-killer of track and field. Janine Robson was only 16 when she took it up and came fourth in the national meeting – another indication that if there is a weaker sex it can hardly be the female one. At 18 she was the champion, the record-holder, and a Commonwealth Games candidate. But at the Games (though she was only two places short of making the final), she was badly injured. There ended a career that had scarcely begun but had already been headed for international success.

Terry Genge was also in on the ground floor of the event. Three more years passed before she won her first national title. But in the next eight years she repeated it five times and was never out of a place, becoming the first to pass 60s, and setting six national records. Her efficient hurdling – she was the second, after Lothian, to win titles at both distances – enabled her to beat rivals who were faster in a flat 400m by a second or more.

The only rival that Genge could not overcome was Lynn Massey. Blessed with a hurdler’s legs, good technique, and more running speed than her rivals, Massey looked like New Zealand’s first world-class prospect when she won the junior title for 100m hurdles as a 16 year old and made her first essay in the 400m event. This first attempt was in fact her last for five years, until in 1984 she suddenly and surprisingly blossomed into the country’s best hurdler over both distances (and one of our top heptathletes as well).

In that year Massey broke the national record twice and finished second in the Australian championship by only half a second. Flintoff, the winner, was three years her senior, the reigning Commonwealth champion and record-holder, and a future Olympic champion! Not surprisingly Massey was sent to the Olympics, where she failed by just one place to reach the semifinals – a very satisfactory performance for an athlete who was having virtually her first year in the event.

Next year she broke her own record twice and won a bronze medal at the Pacific Conference Games. Then came the injuries. For the next six seasons, apart from one brief respite, surgery and other problems kept her sidelined. When one Olympics, two Commonwealth Games, and a 28th birthday passed by, even Massey’s most loyal admirers began to wonder whether she would ever make it back.

But in 1991 she did that, and more: regained her title, winning by three seconds, later got within 0.2s of her six-year-old record, and won selection for the world championships, where she equalled her qualifying time, beat her Olympic time of 1984, and proved she is keen and ready for better things. It was a comeback as perfectly-timed as it was heart-warming.

Massey’s career contains another lesson. Some of our faster 400m runners with height to match, such as Carlene Dillimore and Toni Hodgkinson, should take up hurdling. Then New Zealand could have more Masseys, and even better Masseys. If they find the event does not suit them, nothing will be lost. There is no quicker way of finding out what it takes, and whether you’ve got it.

While the choice is clear in the 400m hurdles it could hardly be more confused in the sprint hurdles, especially since the change from 80m to 100m. Assuming there is no significant difference between the two, we have four Commonwealth medallists to evaluate – Tong, Clare, Shackleton, and McIntosh. I believe Clare’s silver medal was one of the great New Zealand performances because, in both heat and final, she badly frightened a two-time Olympic champion and world record holder, and her time of 11.4s – on grass – was sixth best all-time in the world.

Shackleton’s bronze rates slightly ahead of Tong’s since her time ranked higher, for both that year and all years. McIntosh’s wind-tossed Games time is meaningless, except that she finished less than a tenth of a second behind the reigning world record holder. And in 1958, when she deserved to go to the Games, her all-time ranking (sixth) was the same as Shackleton’s. Add to that McIntosh’s eight national titles (to Shackleton’s none) and seven records (to one, unofficial) and McIntosh wins the photo-finish.

80m and 100m hurdles: June Barbara Clare; reserve, Avis Millie McIntosh
400m hurdles: Lynnette Kay Massey; reserve, Terry Linda Genge

80 METRES HURDLES (including converted 90yds times)
1   13.1   Rona I Tong   37.02.27   Np   1   4
2   15.3   A Walker   37.02.27   W-1   2   12
3   15.7   Jean M Sharp   37.12.04   W-3   3   20
1   12.7   Rona I Tong   37.12.11   W-1   4   5
1   12.1   Rona I Tong   38.02.10   Sydney   5   6
1   11.9   Rona I Tong   38.02.12   Sydney   6   68
2   14.1   Edna R Munro   38.02.19      7   9
2   12.9   Shona Oliphant   38.03.12   C-1   8   10
3   13.1   Edna R Munro   38.03.12   C-1   9   28
2   12.7   Shona Oliphant   39.02.18   C-1   10   32
4   13.6   Z Walshe   39.02.25   W-1   11   25
5   15.0   A Walker   39.02.25   W-1   12   23
3   12.8   D Adams   39.03.11   D-1   13   17
3   12.8   Margery Grindrod   39.03.11   A-2   14   15
2   12.4   Margery Grindrod   39.03.25   A-2   15   49
3   12.6   D Adams   40.00.00      17   35
2=   12.4   M Noeline Gourlay   45 02.10   C   20   22
2   12.2   M Noeline Gourlay   45.02.24   Np-1   22   27
3=   12.4   Zelda M Corbett   47.02.08   A   23   49
5=   12.6   J White   47.03.07   W-2   24   35
2   12.0   M Noeline Gourlay   48.03.06   D-2   27   37
5   12.5   Colleen Bartlett   49.00.00   Np   28   39
5=   12.5   J ‘Pixie’ Fletcher   49.01.29   W-1   31   39
5=   12.5   Colleen Newrick   49.02.19   Gb-1   32   39
3   12.1   Janet P Shackleton   49.03.04   NP-1   33   41
4=   12.4   P Callinan   49.03.04   NP-1   34   49
4   12.3   Yvette W Corlett   49.12.03   D   35   52
4=   12.3   B June Blackburn   49.12.17   C-2   36   54
1   11.5   M Noeline Gourlay   49.12.31   Np-1   37   999

Chapter Twenty-Three   175

Original digital file


Date published


Format of the original

Book excerpt

Creator / Author

  • Peter Heidenstrom


GP Publications Limited


  • D Adams
  • June Blackburn
  • Colleen Bartlett
  • P Callinan
  • June Barbara Clare
  • Yvette W Corlett
  • Carlene Dillimore
  • J Pixie Fletcher
  • Terry Linda Genge
  • M Noeline Gourlay
  • Karen Green
  • Margery Grindrod
  • Toni Hodgkinson
  • Lynn Kay Massey
  • Avis Millie McIntosh
  • Edna R Munro
  • Colleen Newrick
  • Yvonne O'Brien
  • Shona Oliphant
  • Helen Pirovano
  • Marion Prior
  • Janine Robson
  • Pam Ryan
  • Janet P Shackleton
  • Jean M Sharp
  • Frank Sharpley
  • Lyn Stock
  • Margaret Stuart
  • Gail Swart
  • Rona Tong
  • A Walker
  • John Walker
  • Z Walshe
  • J White

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