Thinking and talking about rugby every day for 50+ years
As a 25 year old cub reporter for the New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation I was selected to go to the Summer Olympic Games in Munich Germany in August-September 1972. I had never been out of New Zealand before and so everywhere I went I had eyes as big as soup plates. On the journey over main memories are of getting off the plane at Fiumicino Airport in Rome and standing boggle-eyed counting the Jumbo jets on the tarmac. I kid you not, there were 29 there.
On arrival in Munich my most lingering memories are of seeing colour TV for the first time at a lounge at the airport. My Olympic accommodation, a flat which I was to share with three or four others, was in a big new family-sized apartment block. I was so excited I could not sleep. So naturally I had to find a drinking mate for the first night. A friend from Wellington, Armin Lindenberg of The Dominion, (now prominent in PR in Auckland) just happened to be in the Press Bar. Aided by excitement and jetlag he and I proceeded to slog it out all night until it was time to hit the hay at about 5a.m. We were 25 years old remember.
During the mammoth first session I quickly got into the Olympic swing of things. I chatted to every reporter I could find from any nation. And I handed them each an NZBC Olympic lapel badge. I had been given the job of carrying over a large lolly-sized bag of such badges to be carefully divided among the six of us who were the full New Zealand Broadcasting team. When I awoke next morning all of the full complement of badges had gone to my new world friends. I was not a popular chap with my touring buddies.
My commentary tasks in Munich were two-fold. Firstly I was assigned the swimming events. That was to occupy the first half of the fortnight of competition. Then I was to switch over to radio at the track and field. I was absolutely rapt at those two choices.
The swimming was a wonderful experience. Munich was the Games of Mark Spitz of course. He rushed to seven gold medals and I called them all for radio. The other super-fish I remember were Shane Gould of Australia and Shirley Babashoff of USA. The swimming was of such a high standard that I think there were 32 world records set in a week. To this day I still have all the old commentaries on reel-to-reel tapes in a suitcase in my garage.
The New Zealand swim team did not fare so well. Hardly any of them progressed through beyond the heats. Sitting in the commentary booth next to me was the Radio Telefis Eireann (RTE) commentator from Dublin, a lovely bloke called Jim Sherwin. Each morning he and I would greet each other with a world-weary smile of resignation that “our team is not going to go too well today.” And so it proved.
Jim became a good friend on many trips to Olympic and rugby tours in the years after.
For the track and field at the main Olympic stadium things were even more dramatic and exciting. I could hardly believe being there. It was truly a dream come true. There was a sense of history in every race. As gold medals were battled for and won or lost I always felt the hairs on the back of my neck rise and fall. I called the experience ‘hackles.’ I have felt it many times in the years since in my Olympic experiences.
In Munich the Soviet Valery Borzov won the double in the sprints as did the grim-faced Renate Stecher in the womens. I remember Uganda’s John Akii-Bua amazing the world with a shock victory in the 400 metres hurdles. And Klaus Wolfermann threw to win the Men’s javelin in the sixth and final round. The crowd went absolutely wild. Klaus was a hometown boy.
A couple of other memories come back to me as I write this over 32 years later. In the marathon I was doing a live radio call to New Zealand as it looked like our Jack Foster was in with a medal chance. He was in about 8th place. At the latest report they told us that Frank Shorter of USA was in the lead so our heads all craned to the stadium entranceway to see him come in. But a huge roar went up from the crowd as another runner entered. He must have passed Shorter just before the stadium. Or so we thought.
We broadcasters grabbed for our binoculars to catch a look at his number. Then it dawned on us. He was an imposter who had just jumped onto the street outside the stadium and had been ushered ahead by the unsuspecting officials. Of course he was grabbed, though not before he had run half a circuit of the 400 metre track. The laughter and distraction lowered the excitement of Frank Shorter coming in and going on to secure the gold medal.
And then there was everyone’s sweetheart. If Wolfermann was the male local hero, then Heidimarie Rosendahl was the female darling. She was oh-so cute with her lovely shape, her little cutesy John Lennon spectacles and her supreme athletic talent. She won the long jump gold medal, followed by a silver medal in the pentathlon and was then picked to anchor the West German leg of the 4 x 100 metre relay. As the teams ran to the finish in that race, she was to mark the powerhouse East German amazon, the afore-mentioned Renate Stecher.
As the relay came to the whirl of its last change, West Germany held the lead from the East. The baton was handed to Rosendahl. There was a perfect switch behind her too, by the Eastern team, to Stecher. Around the curve they raced with Rosendahl two metres in front. We all picked it would surely be impossible for her to hold off the double Olympic sprint champion. The crowd took up the running and the loudest cheer I have ever heard in sports urged Rosendahl on to the line. Amazingly, she held the margin and West Germany took the gold. Stecher stomped off in anger. The sweetheart waved to her people in frenzied delight. I will never forget it.
Of course my experiences at Munich, like those for everyone else who was there, are overclouded with the Arab-Israeli terrorism incident. When the Arab Black September group stormed the Israeli team headquarters and shot dead several athletes it became a horrifying situation to be close to. Quite simply the terrorism also blew the Games apart. It all happened and we were only part way through the great fun!
With the Games suspended while the police moved in we waited to see what the hostages would do. Like everyone else there, I was devastated. I had turned 26 in the first week of competition. I was blissfully happy. My wife Anne, back in Auckland where we lived at the time, was pregnant with our first baby. I was at the Games of my dreams.
The killing of several Israeli athletes and the holding of the rest of them as hostages meant the excitement all came crashing down. My first reaction was that this would be the end of the modern Olympic movement as we had come to know it. I thought the rest of the competition would be suspended and we would all be sent home.
Yet in a bizarre way, and looking back all these years later, and very selfishly I admit, the terrorism thing in Munich was very good for my career.
It was like this. Back home at work in New Zealand, there was then a clear division between news reporters and sports reporters. We were housed separate departments and never the twain met. It was considered that sports reporters only commentated on sports events. But out of the Munich horror I phoned some news reports back home which proved to the powers that be that in times of crisis sports reporters could cross the line. That is what happened to me.
Of course I can vividly hark back to the first horror night. I had a friend in the New Zealand track and field team. He was an old rugby rep from Wellington, Laurie D’Arcy. He ran that day in the 100 metres sprint and after his 10.77 seconds in his heat his Games were over. He had failed to progress from his heat through to the next round. Laurie rang me in the studio and asked, “what was I doing later, any chance of coming over for a drink?” Being a bullet-prove lad in those days I said, “sure, come over to the studio at midnight. That’s when I finish work.”
So Laurie did. We went to the infamous Press bar where I was by then pretty much a regular. We settled down for a few beers. Laurie was downcast of course. But I remember we worked hard at cheering him up. At the next table things got a bit raucous. Some off duty German policemen challenged us to a drinking relay race, you know, the kind which blokes of a certain age think of as being clever.
From my increasingly hazy memory I think we kiwis were holding our own in the races. It was New Zealand versus the Germans. Suddenly the bar doors burst open and some different guards came in shouting with revolvers drawn. I wondered what the noise was all about. Our relay-drinking mates translated that apparently the guards reckoned some shots had been fired in the Olympic village. They suggested we should all get away from the windows. We did their bidding. But after the guards had gone the drinking relays resumed. Only later did we realise that the guards were actually talking about the first gunshots of the Arab Terrorist group in their deadly attack on the Israeli team’s quarters. In the bar we thought maybe it was just pissed rifle shooters, like we were, also out on the tiles.
In the end I walked (make that staggered) down to the gate into the Olympic Village where Laurie was heading back to the New Zealand team’s quarters. As it was about 4 a.m the entry gate there was locked. There was no one about. So in the spirit of a million kiwi student parties I cupped my hands and gave the athletic Laurie a leg heave over the high village fence. There was no security.
He landed with a thump on the other side and we laughed like hell as he disappeared down Connolly Strasse towards the New Zealand team rooms. Little did we know that their next door neighbours, the Israeli team, had already had their quarters invaded and several men were dead. Evil eyes must have watched the cheerful D’Arcy wandering by heading for his bed. I also made it home to my place and crashed off to a blissful sleep.
The terrorists waited until the morning light to tell the world of the evil they had accomplished and the infamous demands they wanted next. The Olympics were suddenly in tatters.
The next thing I was being shaken awake by my NZBC colleague Rob Crabtree who informed me of the shambles and distress the Games were now in. Through my hangover I listened in horror as the realisation hit me of how close I had been to the Arab shootings. I hoped D’Arcy had made it home OK.
All that day the world waited as the terrorists were in long negotiations with local police and Olympic authorities. The incident became the centre of world attention. The Olympics were suspended. I sat in our studio glumly watching as the TV networks of the British BBC, ABC of America, as well as local German ZDF, stayed on air all day and into the night, most of the time with the commentators just talking over a single camera shot zeroed in on a narrow view of the Israeli quarters.
At last there were signs of a break in the give and take between the terrorists and the police. The remaining Israeli athletes were seen being hustled into buses. This was chilling to watch, especially when the TV coverage showed helicopters rising from behind nearby buildings. We rushed to the studio windows and watched as the hostages and athletes were whisked away we were told towards the local airport.
The next news to come through was that a successful attack had been made on the terrorists and that they were all dead. That first airport report said that the remaining Israeli athletes had been saved. At the studio my boss, the late Lance Cross filed his final news report and went home. As a member of the International Olympic Committee he was staying a downtown hotel. Like the rest of us he Mr. Cross had had a long day.
But I wasn’t interested in going back to my humble abode. I was too stunned. I sat there in our studio, alone with the devastation of the day and the fact that the cancellation of the Olympic Games would surely be confirmed tomorrow morning. Perhaps forever. One couldn’t have reasonably expected the IOC to continue after several competitors had been murdered. My world had collapsed.
I gazed at the TV screens and only came out of my vacant trance when suddenly brand new stories flashed from Munich’s Furstenfeldbrook Airport. There was a dramatic change. We were next informed that in fact all of the remaining hostages had not been saved at all. Instead they had been blown to bits as well in the police crossfire. This was a mournful addition to the horror of the previous 24 hours of world news. It needed to be told to the folks back home.
As Mr. Cross had gone I took it upon myself to immediately book a phone call back to our Wellington radio network newsroom. These were days well in advance of cellphones and texting.
The staff in New Zealand accepted my call with skepticism. Their last contact from Munich had come from a triumphant Lance Cross telling them of a confirmation that all of the remaining athletes had been saved. Now here was a 26 year-old upstart going against what their authoritative contact, from deep inside the IOC, had told them.
Somehow someone in the newsroom decided to believe the trembling boy at the end of the line. My hurried reports were recorded and they made the various afternoon national radio news. Instantly apparently I was transformed from a jock sports reporter into a person with some kind of ability as a hard news hound. That reputation I was not to really appreciate till I reached home.
The next morning in Munich Lance Cross was not happy that I had “scooped” him. Still, them’s the breaks, right?
So the Games went on, after a suitably sombre memorial service. I fully supported the decision though many did not. For me I was again consumed with my own ambitions.
That might sound selfish, but I resumed my first experience of the marvelous Olympic spirit. It has never left me since.
At those Olympics New Zealand won the men’s rowing eights event. I wasn’t actually there to actually see the race at the rowing course. I listened across the city from the swimming pool. I was so moved by the experience of that victory and the emotion of seeing grown kiwi men sobbing on the victory dais, my wife and I named our first-born child, “Rowan,” when she arrived in this world a month after getting home.
Well, actually that is a bit of a family myth. My wife Anne and I had already decided on the name, boy or girl, months before the Olympics of that year. But hey, we newshounds don’t let the facts spoil a good story, right?
With that in mind let me fast forward to happier times; what a thrill it was for me when our Rowan, as an adult, took up the sport of rowing and she won two New Zealand senior titles. Not only that, she later worked in Lausanne, Switzerland for the World Rowing body, FISA. Furthermore, she reported the rowing competitions at the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games and was right there when Rob Waddell won his gold medal in the men’s single sculls. Now she is a senior reporter for National Radio in Auckland. Did that interest in broadcasting come from the excitement of traveling to the Olympic Games and the excited newsgathering stories I conveyed to her and the rest of my family? I often wonder…
As I lead up to commentating the rugby sevens at Rio in August, I’ll have more Olympic memories; from Montreal next, right here soon.
A tight game saw Nick Farr-Jones's team beat England by 12-6. Well played the Wallabies!
VAN VOLLENHOVEN, TOM
Northern Transvaal and South Africa
7 internationals for Sth Africa 1955–56
Acclaimed as a man who might have become South Africa’s finest wing, van Vollenhoven indeed fashioned a reputation as a great try-scoring wing – but it was for St Helen’s at rugby league.
His international rugby career was cruelly brief. After his debut as a centre against the 1955 Lions, van Vollenhoven moved to the wing and promptly became the first player to score three tries in a test in South Africa. In the second test in Australia the next year, he kicked a dropped goal – it was only the second time he had ever attempted one – but his form fell away in New Zealand and while he played eight of the first nine matches, he played only the third test.
The crew-cutted van Vollenhoven was reckoned to be inconsistent, but there was nothing unreliable about him in the matter of scoring tries. In his 19 matches on that long tour, van Vollenhoven scored 16 tries, but was such a natural and instinctive player that selectors found him difficult to fit into a team pattern.
He certainly proved them wrong, or misguided, with St Helen’s.
Which prominent New Zealand rugby personality admits having become slightly besotted by the British Theatre Production 'Les Miserables?'