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Icons of the West – Don Oliver

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In the absence of much published information, most people today remember the late, great, Donald Carthew Oliver OBE, as a three times Olympic weightlifter and outstanding athlete of his day. What is in danger of being lost is the story of the philanthropist who gave a large part of his life to helping others.

A quick trawl through “The Don’s” extensive list of achievements, however, turns up the intriguing fact that this former butcher turned sports star turned businessman, was the founding chairman of the Auckland Asthma Society. That leads, in turn, to the discovery that the Don Oliver business story is founded in the help Don had given years earlier to a youngster with asthma. It also leads to the discovery that Don was equally committed to helping people overcome depression.

Equally interesting are the stories of the days when he trained the likes of super All Black Michael Jones, Inga “The Winga” Tuigamala, Eroni Clarke and Craig Dowd, outstanding swimmer Paul Kingsman and many other top athletes of his era. His wife Maureen still chuckles at the huge pleasure he got from those associations.

“The Don”, one of the great New Zealand athletes of all time, served notice of his huge talent, finishing 12th at the Rome Olympics of 1960. He went on to compete at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics and the following year was 5th at the 1965 World Championships in Teheran. Three years after that he achieved his best result at an Olympics with eighth at the Mexico Games. In the same era, he won the silver medal at the Perth Commonwealth Games in 1962 and topped this with gold at Jamaica in 1966.

His Auckland, New Zealand and other titles are simply too numerous to list here, but it is an astonishing roll call of achievement for the former wrestler who only turned to weightlifting at about age 17, in order to build his strength.

Quite early in his lifting career, Don Oliver theorised that weightlifting could assist asthmatics. He was proved right when he started training a young asthmatic with such good results that the lad’s specialist asked “The Don” to start training other patients. The commitments of international competition didn’t allow this, but Don never forgot and when he rang down the curtain on his Olympic career after the Mexico Games, he immediately went to work building a business that would help others – asthmatics among them.

After a brush with burn-out, he’d also noticed that certain exercises helped lift his mood and in an age when depression wasn’t well understood, Don successfully developed exercise regimes to help people with the affliction and ultimately, wrote a book on the subject.

When he was 21, the Avondale born, raised and educated Don Oliver bought land in Glen Eden. He then went on to work as a butcher at Hellaby’s in South Auckland, and later became a teacher of butchery at the Manukau Technical Institute. International sport and fame then came knocking and in time, Don capitalised by creating the Don Oliver brand of barbells (weights) around which he developed exercise programmes. With his Olympic career over, he sold the company and using the proceeds he and Maureen built a house and a gym on the Glen Eden land and went into the fitness business.

While they were waiting for the gym to be completed, Don ran classes for asthmatics under the house. Later, one gym became two and then a third, with a fourth operating under the Don Oliver name in Paraparaumu.

Maureen Oliver points to her husband’s very strong religious beliefs (among other things he was Patron of the New Zealand Christian Sports Fellowship) as the well-spring of his life and the thing that drove him to help others. He was, she says, in business to help others and youth in particular.

“Don didn’t care if he made money as long as he was helping people,” she says of a man who has been described as driven, focussed and with a massive work ethic. Certainly it was his work with youth as much as anything, that inspired a group of leading West Aucklanders to create the Don Oliver Youth Sport Foundation in his memory.

The Foundation, which The Trusts take great pleasure in supporting, provides scholarships and other support, to promising West Auckland athletes. It is the outstanding organisation of its type in New Zealand. It gives assistance to outstanding athletes in any sport and there hasn’t been a single New Zealand Olympic or Commonwealth Games team since its formation, that hasn’t included at least one scholar. New Zealand’s outstanding swimmer, Lauren Boyle, was a past recipient and is among nine past or current recipients highly likely to be in the team to the Glasgow Commonwealth’s next year. Among them is young Matthew Madsen perhaps the Commonwealth’s outstanding weightlifter in his class.

Don Oliver was appointed an Officer of the Order of the British Empire in the 1981 Queen’s Birthday Honours.

He died of cancer in Auckland on 26 February 1996.