Cream of the Cropp
Naomi Arnold finds gold in an old Olympian's tale of glory.
It's an Olympic story to warm the cockles of every Kiwi's heart - plucky young Jack Cropp and Peter Mander, sailing in a homemade kauri, rata, and kawaka boat, beating the world in the Sharpie class at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics and taking home New Zealand's first sailing gold. Better yet, they'd beaten the Australians.
It was, in fact, our first sailing medal - hard to believe, but New Zealand had never entered Olympic yachting before then. First Games, first gold medal, and Mander and Cropp suddenly became national figures.
Mander died in 1998, and Jack Cropp is 85 now, making him New Zealand's oldest living Olympic medallist. He had a stroke a year ago, and he and his wife recently moved from their longtime Tata home to a tidy house near Takaka.
He keeps his Olympic trinkets in an old one-pound Cadbury Continental chocolate box - the badges and medallions that mark a lifetime of an Olympian. The honour never really goes away; every four years, journalists call.
His gold medal rests now in a presentation box. It's had a busy life. He used to take it around schools until one youngster tested it out to see if it was real gold - with his teeth. It was once stolen from a display at the Nelson Provincial Museum, but was found pushed under the door of Nelson Courthouse a few days later by a thief with apparent regard for the honour of the Olympic Games.
But Cropp has been a boatbuilder and a yachtsman longer than an Olympian.
He was born in Hokitika in 1927, and later lived by the sea in Canterbury's McCormacks Bay with Mander and other sailing enthusiasts within close range. They'd messed around in boats since high school, playing on the water, designing and building boats and models, testing them on the rush of water from stormwater culverts.
From their salt-drenched upbringing, Cropp and Mander became top New Zealand sailors, dominating provincial, regional and national competitions. They formed a syndicate comprised of what Cropp calls a "perfect" match for Olympic glory - an accountant, a shipping clerk, a boatbuilder and a carpenter.
They built two boats from four-century-old kauri logs Cropp picked up from a demolition site in Christchurch, adding native hardwoods rata and kawaka as well.
"I didn't want to go to Australia with Australian timber in the boat," Cropp says.
When the twin boats were finished, they were within three millimetres of each other. He still prefers the adze to the factory.
"We could modify fittings if we thought they were better than the ones off the shelf; the boat became the part of the crew rather than just something that you went and bought," he says.
"If you could get through the mess in the garage right now you'd find old-fashioned caulking tools, adzes, all sorts of things you use in old-fashioned and current boat building practice."
They named them Jest and Quest, and took Jest with them to Melbourne. The well-honed pair soon became favourites, Jest strong enough to race across Port Philip Bay in 45-knot winds during the fourth heat of the Olympics. They contested seven races - four one week, three the week after, with the six best counted.
Though Mander was already an 18-foot world champion, the pair were green enough to sail without a protest flag. A close call with the Australian team Rolly Tasker and John Scott in the fourth heat saw the Kiwis scrambling to find a white ribbon to display, but that wasn't considered exact enough to stand.
The gold medal race came down to the last race of seven. Mander and Cropp had already secured silver, and even second would have given them the gold, as long as the Aussies weren't ahead of them. But as fate would have it, they were, and the Australians celebrated gold with the Kiwis happy with silver. But a couple of hours later, the jury of appeal upheld a French protest that its boat had been obstructed by the Australian boat, Shadow IV. The disqualification put the trans-Tasman rivals on equal points, but Cropp and Mander's silver turned to gold because they'd won three races to the Aussies' two.
The Australians were furious, saying the better boat had lost.
"Some of the Australian public thought they were robbed, but there's no such thing as a tie in a gold medal," Cropp says. The Kiwis took them out to a wine bar afterwards to compensate.
Returning to New Zealand triumphant saw no ticker tape parade - it "was very low-key compared to what things are now".
He says talking about it makes him feel young again, part of a different time.
"The idea [of the Olympics] is that the youth of the world would meet on the sports arena rather than the battlefield," he says. "It was a wonderful ideal to start that, but I think things have actually slipped in the time, because they were supposed to be amateur games, and there are some people who believe that the Olympics we went to were the last of the truly amateur Games.
"With a few exceptions, it was really amateur sailing in the spirit of the Olympics."
He says as soon as money's involved, professionalism and drugs creep in, and the Olympics have become more of a status symbol of the country that's holding it rather than for the sportspeople.
"I think that's why I've made such a point about amateurism," he says.
Jest, made for 56, lies now with a restorer in Mapua, after Cropp raffled her off post-Olympics to start a fund for young sailors. He has shared his boat-building knowledge throughout his life.
"I'm not one of these people who says if you have an idea you have to be secretive about it; it's talking about things and understanding and learning from other people you gradually take sailing forward rather than just staying static."
He was inducted into the New Zealand Sports Hall of Fame in 1990, and since his victory New Zealand has won six Olympic sailing golds, four silver and five bronze. Cropp later designed the Cropp 4.6, a yacht that could be used for all age groups, all skill levels, and is easily transportable, with six able to be stacked on a single trailer and towed with a car.
It reflects his passion for encouraging young people into the sport, and his hope of making yachting more accessible - perhaps in the hope of making more young champions like he.
- © Fairfax NZ News