Thinking and talking about rugby every day for 50+ years
MONTREAL 1976; This is the Second of eight Summer Olympic Games Keith has attended.
Travelling to Canada in 1976 was part of an incredible journey for me that year. You see, not only did I fly to broadcast at the Olympics, but afterwards instead of returning straight home I carried on to South Africa for Television New Zealand and joined the reporting of the New Zealand All Blacks rugby tour of South Africa. In all I was away from my home, which was then in Lower Hutt, New Zealand for 14 weeks. Those two sporting events were inextricably joined by controversial circumstances and I believe I was the only reporter in the world to have seen the effects each event had on the other. And when I got home and thought about the whole experience I realised it had changed me totally as a person.
On arrival in Montreal for the Olympics the first thing I noticed for the first time the adoption of the full-card round-the-neck identification security system for everyone. Four years had passed since the Munich Olympic terrorist disaster so therefore much closer scrutiny of all people was now deemed necessary. At Munich we had a card which we wore on our lapels and I remember that some skylarking German staff even put an ID card around a little dog’s neck. There was no sign of that lightness of attitude in Montreal.
Our TVNZ team in Montreal was 20 strong. Unlike Munich we were formally divided into radio and TV crews. My job in Montreal was solely in the main stadium doing Opening and Closing Ceremony for TV. That was followed by Track and Field commentaries.
My co-commentator in the main stadium was the former Olympic 1500metre bronze medallist John Davies. He and I had worked together in Christchurch a couple of years before at the Commonwealth Games. Davies combined a deep love of his sport with a great dignity, plus he had an innate early understanding of the requirements of broadcasting. Over the years we had a lot of fun together and it was devastating to many others and myself when he passed away, at a far too young age, in 2003. By then he was Chairman of the New Zealand Olympic Committee.
Before the opening day of the 1976 Games I had spent many weeks trawling through newspapers at the Wellington library and at the British High commission reading room. I was looking for notes and clippings about the countries which were to compete at the games. Of course there was no such thing as ‘google’ in those far off days! My ambition in the research was to be able to say something meaningful at the opening ceremony about each nation as they marched in. In Montreal any countries that I had nothing about I phoned up in their Olympic village office or went to see.
But as we walked around the Olympic Village (the media were allowed to then) both John Davies and I repeatedly met resentment or indifference towards us being New Zealanders. This came especially from those countries of what we were allowed to call then 'black Africa.' We would go into an office and ask our regular opening ceremony questions; “How many athletes in your team please? What are you wearing for the march past? Who is carrying your flag?” When we identified ourselves as being New Zealanders there was often no information suddenly available.
In the end we realised that the antipathy towards New Zealanders was as the result of the All Black rugby team having just commenced its 24-match tour of South Africa.
As a protest against any sports contact with South Africa, the country of Tanzania did not even travel to Montreal. They simply pulled out of all competition. That was going to deny the Games of a repeat of the classic 1500 metre clash we had enjoyed at Christchurch at the Commonwealth Games between our John Walker and Tanzania’s world record holder Filbert Bayi.
The no-show of Tanzania then led to meetings in Montreal by a number of other countries, mostly African. There was a feeling that they should stand in solidarity with the black and coloured population of South Africa. That country had been banned from the Olympics since 1968 and in 1976 it was still under the yoke of apartheid. In the end Davies and I and Brendan Telfer traipsed along to a press conference and heard Mr Jean-Claude Ganga of the Supreme Council for Sport in Africa call for a full boycott of the Olympics in protest at the All Blacks tour. We wondered what his call really meant. Did he have any clout?
This took place on the eve of the opening ceremony. The next morning as I tried to organise my precious notes into order for the ceremony news started to come through that, in their droves, countries were pulling out in support of Tanzania and Mr Ganga’s call.
“So you New Zealanders are the guys who are causing the trouble?” said a Canadian in a shop that day to me when he asked what country I was from. It had got to the point where I had earlier called myself an Australian reporter when I rang to some countries offices seeking information. Those were difficult days I can tell you.
In the end John and I went to our commentary boxes at the stadium not knowing which teams were still going to compete and which were joining the boycott.
As we readied ourselves for the opening ceremony commentary there was a further significant problem. The pictures from the stadium were flashing out across the world but the commentary circuits were not. John and I sat there getting increasingly agitated. On a red telephone on the desk I communicated with the TVNZ studio and asked them, “What the hell is going on. Why aren’t we ‘on’ the air? Everyone else is.”
The grand ceremony started and it was truly superb. Dancers danced, trumpeters played and the culture of the French-Canadians was displayed to the world. Davies and I just sat there in glum silence, muted by the sound mix failure at our commentary position. Was it someone in the local TV crew also protesting at what New Zealand’s rugby team was doing? We didn’t know, except that TV New Zealand’s commentary was, in the end, the only one not working.
Instead I took my precious notes and called them through down the red phone to where Phillip Leishman was hosting the TV event out of a studio in Wellington. He listened to me through an ear-phone hook-up. In typical professional style he then effortlessly broadcast all the colour of the Opening Ceremony to the New Zealand audience. Quite rightly he made it sound as though it was he who had done all the weeks of research. No disrespect to the memory of the late Phil who was a good mate, and who did an excellent job, but I was not a happy chap.
The teams started to march in and we noted that many of the African states were not there. In all 21 boycotted, plus Iraq and Guyana.
When at last a sound technician ran down the aisle and gave John and I the thumbs-up to start talking, Phillip stopped gaining all the glory in New Zealand while in Montreal at the stadium we were left with the crumbs. I remember the first nation John and I called was “Poland.” Never was I more pleased to see Polish people! We hadn’t even had the honour of saying “here comes New Zealand, etc,” as our team came in.
The whole day turned out to be a bloody shambles, what with the New Zealand role in the boycott and the cocked-up sound gear. But there was one more thing to mess up the day.
I had kept my cool as best I could during the whole drama at the stadium. It is best to do that when things are crashing in disrepair around you. But when at last I made it back to my hotel room and closed the door and was on my own, I suddenly unleashed all of my frustrations. I saw all of my preparation clippings and stuff lying there, so lovingly kept for weeks back home and then transported so carefully to Canada, not to mention being typed up til a late hour with my colleague Marie Watson, the night before. In a flash of rage I lashed out with a kick at the table they were all lying on. Unfortunately for me I misplaced my aim and stubbed my toe badly on the table leg. The result was I had a limp for the next three or four days. It was not one of my best Olympic times.
But hey! After the shambles of the Opening Ceremony we of the crew consoled ourselves that we were actually in Montreal and there was no turning back. It was the Olympic Games! And pretty soon we took the attitude of saying “tough” when it came to discussing the absence of the Africans. To miss out was their problem we all said.
The action roared into life in the stadium and it was great. A couple of days into the track and field John Davies went strangely quiet at the microphone when Dick Quax ran in the final of the 5000 metres. John was Dick’s coach and naturally he hoped with everything he had that Dick would secure a win for New Zealand. Firstly though we listened with awe and some amazement as the New Zealand hockey team won a gold medal over Australia. Could Quax, an hour later, repeat a win for New Zealand?
In the end Lasse Viren of Sweden beat him home but Dick bravely took second. Another great kiwi runner of those days, Rod Dixon was just pipped out of a medal and finished fourth. That was one of the all-time great finals.
We met Dick afterwards and jumped in a cab with him to travel across town to our TV Studio. In the cab John nudged the modest Dick and asked to see his silver medal. Dick brought the shining prize out of his bag. To me the silver medal looked great! But in the true competitive spirit of a top athlete, instead of kissing it and celebrating, Quax held it up in front of his face and shouted at it, “fuck you!” he said to the medal, “You should have been gold!”
Back home that race was on a Saturday morning. 24 hours later many churches held back on their morning worship as John Walker lined up in the 1500 metres final. The pace of the race crawled and we wondered if the big New Zealander would have the speed finish to hold off his rivals.
Thank goodness in the end he did. I was as proud as punch to call Walker up the straight live to millions watching back home. I felt really good to be a kiwi that day. People came up to John and I afterwards and shook us by the hands as though we had actually run and won the race. I loved it! (Mind you, in the Games from Munich 1972 until before Beijing in 2008 that Walker win was still the only Olympic gold medal I had called for my country. Valerie Adams changed that in 2008. )
Other events I recall from Montreal were the high jump where a superb contest developed between Dwight Stones of USA, Greg Joy of Canada and Jacek Wszola of Poland. As Canada had not won a gold medal at their own Games, there was great hope for the highly ranked Joy. At one point he had to clear a personal best to stay in medal contention. 100,000 shushed down as he approached the bar. And when he cleared the height successfully the Olympic shout I had heard the Muncheners scream, at Heidimarie Rosendahl and Klaus Wolfermann four years earlier, now echoed around the Montreal stadium. Eventually though Greg Joy could only manage a bronze medal and Canada finished their Games with five silvers won and six bronzes only.
Then there was the sprinting where Hasely Crawford of Trinidad and Tobago, Don Quarrie of Jamaica and Valeri Borzov of USSR finished in that order in the 100 metres. I remember Crawford won from lane one. He had arrived at the track beforehand and walked the whole 100-metre length of the front straight in front of the crowd. To complete his preparation he dropped to his knees and kissed the white finish line. Minutes later when he had walked back and the starter’s gun went off the big man flashed down the same lane and took the Gold. It was great to see!
Let me indulge you with one other memory from Montreal. This one is a wee bit naughty. One night, instead of going straight back from the main stadium to the hotel I had to detour for some reason to our studio. When I walked in the TVNZ producer, Harold Anderson, fell on me said, “thank goodness you’re here. We need a boxing commentator right now.” My first reaction was, “No way! I’m knackered Harold, give me a break.” But Harold said, “You’ll have no problems. The fight you’ll be doing is not live. It’s a great fight from this afternoon’s session. We recorded it but it has no commentary on it. Go and have a look at the fight, see what happens, and then we’ll record you.”
So I went into the videotape area and viewed the fight in question. Sure enough, it was a cracker of a contest between an American and a Russian. I made notes on the action in round one. Then I noted that at exactly one minute and 30 seconds of round two the Russian was knocked clean out by a powerful left hook from his American opponent.
They then played me the recording and I put my delayed commentary on. Being a crafty blighter I made reference, several times in round one to a perceived (by me) awkward stance of the Russian. Then early in the second half I said, “my word, this Russian is so awkward he looks very vulnerable to a big left hook!’ Seconds later of course, he crashed to the deck from such a punch. Coming out of the commentary booth Harold Anderson gave me a funny look. Me, I just shrugged my shoulders, packed up and went home. I told people for years I was the most perceptive boxing commentator the world had ever seen!
In the end the Games came to a close. When it all had been taken into account it had been a fun time in Montreal, a beautiful city and a wonderful experience for us after a grim beginning for New Zealanders. Maynard Ferguson played a brilliant trumpet lament as the Olympic flag was lowered and the lights went slowly out. I had to pack quickly next day and head for the airport. I next had South Africa on my mind. I had to join the All Black tour and take it till the end of the full four test series. It would be another nine weeks before I got home.
To wind up these Montreal memories here I have to say that those Games, in the end changed my vision of the world. 100% in fact.
Before the Games you could say I was something akin to a red-necked kiwi. I thought very little about any South African social issues and what the African nations were protesting and boycotting about. I wanted the Games to go ahead with no fuss but I also totally believed in the All Blacks-South Africa rugby rivalry. Every New Zealander did. Talk about naïve.
After being among all the people in Montreal it only took me a few days in South Africa before I could see what Tanzania, Mr Ganga and the other boycotting countries were on about. All around me South Africa was still in the grip of it’s Government’s apartheid and it was horrible to observe. Whites only park benches, whites-only beaches, pubs and hotels. Black people were living in the worst kind of poverty. The Group Areas act was still in force. So was all the other repulsion of the South African Government regime then.
And the aggressive and arrogant behaviour of the white populace really got my goat. When they did bother to ask me to relate the stories of the Montreal experience the white South Africans mostly sniffed at my recall of the awfulness of the boycott. By then I was telling the story on the side of the black nations. I had undergone a complete reversal.
But to the South Africans in their world the All Black tour was everything. They simply didn’t believe it when I told them that the Olympics are a unique experience that they should try sometime. “Stand on the corner of the street outside the Olympic Village,” I told them, “and you will see white men and women, blacks, yellow-skinned, brown and sallow all go by. And guess what? Despite what their governments are doing they are all friends! None of them want to shoot each other.”
Many South Africans in 1976, and many an All Black and rugby supporter who were there listening as well, looked at me kind of strange. I was viewed of course, as one of those never-to-be-trusted liberals or troublemakers. With regard to what had happened with the boycott they had not the slightest idea what I was talking about.
Mind you, for me it took the experience of being in both places to firm up my new beliefs.
The Olympic Games can do that to you.
...... now read elsewhere my entry here on my earlier experiences and memories of Munich 1972
40,000 fans welcome popular Manu Samoa onto Eden Park but NZ wins 35-13.
Rosslyn Park and England
4 internationals for England 1936
One of rugby history’s most colourful characters, Prince Alexander Obolensky was the son of Prince Alexis of Russia. The young prince was born in Leningrad in 1916 but was taken to England the following year, presumably to avoid the Russian revolution.
He was educated at Trent College and Brasenose College, Oxford. ‘Obo’, as he was known, was an elegant and speedy wing and his rugby prowess was quickly recognised. Late in 1935 he played for Oxford in the annual Universities match, the first of three appearances in that famous game.
As a 19-year-old, early in 1936, he played for England against New Zealand at Twickenham. England caused an upset by thrashing the All Blacks by 13–0. Obolensky scored two tries, one of which has become a classic. His diagonal run through the New Zealand defence, as he scored for the second time, can still be admired on newsreel film footage and on YouTube. That game thereafter became known by rugby writers as ‘Obolensky’s match’.
After he left Oxford University his form fluctuated and fell away. He won only four caps, all in the 1935–36 season, but his memory is ensured both because of his colourful family background and his extraordinary, if briefly flowering, rugby talent.
A world record in first-class rugby is still entered in some books under Obolensky’s name. ‘Obo’ toured South America with a 'Rugby Football Union' team in 1936 (presumably an English selection), and in a game against Brazil he crossed for 17 tries, still a record for one game, though perhaps the first-class quality of the local XV might be called into question.
When World War II broke out, Obolensky joined the Royal Air Force. He died when the Hawker Hurricane he was piloting crashed on landing in East Anglia. He was the first of 111 rugby internationals from all countries to lose their lives in the conflict.
In the Rugby World Cups 1987-2011 which final drew the biggest crowd?