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Icon of the West – Roy Williams, MNZN

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Roy Williams in full flightWith brilliant Olympic and Commonwealth Games results recently, New Zealand seems to be entering a new golden age in sport but it’s an era built on the back of an earlier golden age when there were no professionals, no money, no high performance expertise, no sports nutrition and little if any technology.

This earlier age was created by some of New Zealand’s most gifted and most determined athletes and the occasional coach. Their names are the names of the giants from the 1950’s and ‘60’s: Yvette Williams, (Sir) Peter Snell, (Sir) Murray Halberg, Bill Baillie, Barry Magee, John Davies, Les Mills, Don Oliver and of course, Roy Williams.

Born in Dunedin but for many years a Te Atatu resident, Roy Williams was one of New Zealand’s greatest athletes and among its unluckiest. A junior rugby player of talent and a basketball international between 1957 and 1962, he was also our greatest decathlete. For 15 years he dominated this most demanding of events as New Zealand and Commonwealth champion. But he was never an Olympian.

At his peak in the 1960’s, Roy consistently sustained and improved world-class scores that put him in the top 4 or 5 decathletes in the world. Having instigated the inclusion of the decathlon in the Commonwealth Games he won its first gold medal in 1966 at Kingston, Jamaica. These were results that entitled him to be an Olympian twice over but, for reasons never explained, New Zealand officialdom refused to select him for the Tokyo and Mexico Olympics in 1964 and 1968. Medal winning scores from both games suggest that, had he been there and at his best, he was good enough to have medalled. Winning gold was not beyond his grasp.

His career as an athlete ended in 1970. His parallel career as a leading sport journalist, which put him at the heart of many of New Zealand’s great sporting moments of the mid-20th century, rolled on for another 20 years. During this time also, he developed into an outstanding athletics coach. Beginning in 1970 with a group of Te Atatu school students, athletes he has trained have won 28 New Zealand titles, broken 17 New Zealand records and represented New Zealand at World Athletics Championships and Commonwealth Games.

Roy dominated the New Zealand decathlon for 15 years. He held the Commonwealth decathlon record for 10 years, the New Zealand title for 11 years and the New Zealand record for 27 years. In addition he has also held New Zealand titles in the long jump, discus and 120 yard (110.7m) hurdles. He also held the Australian decathlon title. 44 years after a torn hamstring at the 1970 Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh ended an extraordinary international sporting career, he remains our greatest decathlete and one of our greatest athletes of all time.

His older sister Yvette was his initial inspiration. Also ranked among our all-time greats, Yvette was our first woman Olympic gold medallist, setting an Olympic record in winning the long jump at the 1952 Helsinki Games. She also won four Commonwealth Games gold medals, two in the long jump and one each in the shot and discus. She was twice New Zealand Sportsman of the Year (now the Supreme Halberg Award) and was honoured by her country with the CNZM and the CBE.

Roy tells some of their story in “Sports Crazy – a Lifetime in Kiwi Sport”, his recently released autobiography which describes the life and times of a group of sporting superheroes that arose in New Zealand in the ‘50’s and 60’s, and with very little help or money, dominated the world.

It will astonish today’s young athletes, for example, that Yvette had to make her own black shorts for the Helsinki Olympics. Roy, (now Sir) Murray Halberg and Les Mills hitch-hiked around the South Island to get to events. Roy’s basketball team hitched from Auckland to Invercargill to compete; and Roy & Ngaire Williams along with Les & Colleen Mills travelled Europe on a shoestring before settling in California for 2 years working at a patchwork of jobs to pay the bills while they trained to be world class athletes.

These athletes were quite indomitable. They were going to take on the world and win. No obstacle was too great, no sacrifice too painful, no injury too severe. Even after tearing his hamstring in the long jump, the second of 10 decathlon events at Edinburgh in 1970, Roy crawled out of the landing pit unable to walk, his father’s dictum “never, ever, give up” echoing in his head. He gobbled down some pain killers, had the leg tightly strapped and two hours later limped into the shotput circle. The high jump came next but he was finally defeated by the sprints and the 1,500. You can’t run with one leg. It was the end of an astonishing career in athletics.

It was not, however, the end of a life in sport. In 1965, just as the Williams’ and the Mills’ were about to leave California, Roy turned down an opportunity to become a super-fit “guinea pig” for NASA as part of their buildup to sending a man to the moon. He and his wife, the late Ngaire, instead returned to Auckland where Roy was recruited to be a sports reporter for the Auckland Star newspaper.

His beat included athletics, rugby and league. He was there when the 1971/72 British Lions beat the All Blacks; at the 1972 Munich Olympics when Palestinian terrorists massacred Israeli team members and on the spot in 1972 when All Black Keith Murdoch was sent home. He suggested the introduction of kicking tees for rugby years before they were introduced and championed a rugby competition that, while not adopted at the time, bore a remarkable resemblance to today’s Super Rugby competition.

Roy has been honoured by his country with an MNZM, he is a former Sportsman of the Year and a member of the New Zealand Sports Hall of Fame; the Eden Park Sports Media Hall of Fame He is a Life Member of the NZ Sports Journalists Association; he won the NZ Sports Journalists’ Association Lifetime Contribution to Sport through Journalism Award, the Waitakere City Coach of the Year and Waitakere City Lifetime Coach of the Year awards.

And now an author. “Sports Crazy” is available at good bookshops and will be an inspirational read for any young athlete today.