It's 1976 and the Olympic games are being held in Montreal, Canada. In protest at New Zealand's attendance at the games and ongoing sporting association with Apartheid South Africa (specifically the All Blacks continuing to tour there), many African nations refuse to take part in the games.
This was not our finest hour as a nation. So you can imagine that telling the story of a plucky band of Kiwi hockey players who achieve Olympic gold against the odds (in the final they faced an Australian team who had a 13 game winning-streak against them) - is somewhat problematic given the setting.
Fortunately in Striking gold: New Zealand hockey's remarkable victory at the 1976 Olympics author and journalist Suzanne McFadden has done a great job of sitting the stories of these individual players in amongst both the history of hockey in New Zealand, but more importantly the political and social context of that time. In reading the book I've learned at least as much about the politics of the era as I have about the sport.
I asked author Suzanne McFadden a few questions about the book, and what she was hoping to achieve in writing it.
Your background is in sports journalism and you’re a self-professed fan of hockey. Was writing this book your “dream gig”?
It was definitely a dream first book for me to write, in so many ways. Hockey was my sporting passion as a kid, and growing up, I was aware New Zealand had won an Olympic gold medal in hockey, but I didn’t know a lot more about the story behind it. Very few Kiwis did. As a journalist (now in my 30th year), my passion has always been people – and telling rich human interest stories. And Striking Gold is really a collection of great yarns about a bunch of great Kiwi blokes, who may have come from very different walks of life, but all shared the same passion – to win Olympic gold.
How important was it to you that you cover the social history and context in which all this was happening?
It was hugely important. I didn’t want Striking Gold to be branded as “a hockey book”, or “an Olympics book”. I wanted it to portray an era in New Zealand where sport was still played on a purely amateur basis; where the men in the New Zealand hockey team also held down full-time jobs and helped raise young families. They had balance in their lives.
Although it was an amateur era, they were absolutely professional in their approach to the sport. Players like Barry Maister, John Christensen and their captain, Tony Ineson, would head down to “Hospital Corner” at Hagley Park every week-day lunchtime to practise their penalty corner moves, hundreds of times over, and then return to work. It was critical, too, to describe the political backdrop, especially when New Zealand’s sporting contacts with South Africa cast such a shadow over the 1976 Olympics.
Do you think we New Zealanders have really “processed” the part our country played in the controversy of the Montreal Games? My feeling is that we seem to gloss over that period a bit.
I’ve been surprised that so many people had no idea that the All Blacks tour of South Africa in ’76 threatened to derail the Montreal Olympics. We remember the Springbok tour protests of 1981, but the shame of 1976 is like a part of our history that we’ve conveniently extinguished.
The hockey gold medallists certainly remember it very vividly, recalling being too embarrassed to wear their New Zealand tracksuits around the athletes’ village. Some of them maintain it should have been the New Zealanders sent home from Montreal instead of the African nations who walked out.
There are some amazing things that happened to the players in this champion team. What was your favourite story that you came across in doing research for this book?
There are so many! But one of the great finds was the Jack Lovelock letter, hidden in an old leather suitcase in Selwyn Maister’s home in Christchurch.
The letter of thanks was sent from Lovelock soon after he won his Olympic gold medal in the 1500m at the 1936 Berlin Games, addressed to Havilah Down – Maister’s grandfather who essentially ran hockey in New Zealand for 30 years. The lovely coincidence was that 40 years after that letter was sent, Maister would join Lovelock as the only two Rhode Scholars to have won an Olympic gold medal for New Zealand.
Sometimes Kiwis aren’t good about talking about their achievements as it’s considered “skiting” to some. In speaking with the players were they reticent to talk about their experiences or were they pretty forthcoming?
Initially, some of the players wondered why I would even want to write a book about a sporting tournament that happened four decades ago, and whether we would print just enough copies for them to hand out to their children and grandchildren… They are a truly humble bunch! But once they started talking, they opened up and shared some incredible memories.
They never bragged about being the best team in the world; instead they marvelled in how they came together as a perfect unit, and with a lot of hard work, skill and even a little luck, beat the world’s best.
Do you think there are other, equally extraordinary, “hidden” sports stories in New Zealand history that are waiting to be written?
Absolutely - especially from sports considered outside the mainstream. It’s just a matter of finding the time to tell them all!
If someone were interested in this period of sporting history, what books would you recommend they read?
For more about New Zealand’s performances at the 1976 Olympics, you can read Ivan Agnew’s book Aim High. There are some great New Zealand sports books on the 1950s and ‘60s - Arthur’s Boys by Joseph Romanos, detailing the astonishing achievements of Arthur Lydiard’s track athletes; and Old Heroes, Warwick Roger’s excellent recollection of the 1956 Springboks tour of New Zealand.
Even if your non-fiction reading doesn't usually lean towards the sporting, I'd recommend giving Striking gold a go as it's an engaging read that pulls you with its cast of hockey personalities, turbulent geo-politics, and unlikely twists and turns.
Win a copy of Striking Gold
We have one copy of this fascinating book to giveaway. Entry is open to Christchurch City Libraries cardholders. Simply leave a comment with your suggestion of a great sporting or history read by 5pm Friday 22 April to go in the draw. A winner will be announced on Tuesday 26 April.