New Zealand's golden Games in London

Last updated 05:00 16/12/2012
NZ gold medalists
LAWRENCE SMITH/Fairfax NZ

BLING BLING: New Zealand's Olympic gold medalists (rear): Joseph Sullivan and Nathan Cohen (double sculls), Mahe Drysdale (single sculls), Eric Murray and Hamish Bond (pair), and (front), Polly Powrie (women's 470), Lisa Carrington (K1 200m) and Jo Aleh (women's 470). Shot put gold medalist Valerie Adams is absent.

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Marc Hinton looks back on the joyous days of the London Olympics and rates a Kiwi campaign that positively dripped gold.

It's always good to be a Kiwi in London. But for two weeks in the middle of their summer of 2012, it was hard not to feel especially loud, proud and well and truly wowed.

And there was not a rugby ball in sight.

The Olympics were, of course, a runaway success for the host nation, which did a splendid job of organising and staging the "greatest" Games of the modern era. Team GB stepped up to the plate big time with a haul of 65 medals, including 29 gold, that sent the host nation into a jingoistic fit of delirium.

It was party time in old London Town and not so much lost, as swallowed up, amid the cacophony was a tremendous Olympics by the New Zealand team. You can make a compelling case that, with six gold medals and 13 overall, this was the most successful Games in our history.

Sure, Los Angeles delivered more gold. And Seoul just as many medals.

But Los Angeles (as with Moscow before) were *asterisk Games. That is to say feats achieved there should come with a footnote. Just as a huge chunk of the West (including an official New Zealand team) stayed away in 1980, the 1984 Olympics were boycotted by 14 Eastern bloc nations (17 in total).

So while no-one would deny the canoeists, sailors, rowers and Mark Todd their golden moments from 1984, there were notable sporting nations absent. For the kayakers, in particular, this was significant.

And Seoul was excellent, but that haul of 13 medals was very bronze-heavy, with just three golds.

London had a full attendance, and without doubt the six gold medals represented something very, very special indeed. We were 15th on the medal table. Just one gold behind Australia. Ahead of such heavyweights as Cuba, the Czech Republic, Spain, Brazil and South Africa. The Little Engine very much could.

If you take out Los Angeles, the most golds won by a New Zealand team previously had been three - in Tokyo (1964), Seoul (1988), Athens (2004) and Beijing (2008).

By whatever measure, to double the accepted quota was off the charts. High Performance Sport NZ's own stated goal had been 10 medals and three golds.

Yes, fun times, and nowhere more so than at Eton Dorney where the rowing took place on a ripper of a purpose-built course where the stands were packed and the atmosphere cracking.

Three golds and two bronze medals were delivered by a squad that lived up to its superstar billing - and record funding - superbly.

It was, without question, great to be a Kiwi at this Buckinghamshire venue, which probably explained why New Zealand supporters were invariably last to leave the facility's popular beer garden each day.

They had plenty to celebrate. This high-profile squad looked all that expectation in the eyes and did not blink. That's some steely stuff.

The women's pair of Juliette Haigh and Rebecca Scown set the ball rolling when they won bronze in a result that would prove a fitting end to Haigh's storied career.

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But the fireworks came when double-scullers Nathan Cohen and Joseph Sullivan produced one of those Kiwi Olympic moments that will live long in the memory.

The compact pair - Hobbits in a field of Orcs, someone later said - produced the perfect race in the final as they timed their trademark big finish to perfection to mow the field down over the final 500.

The stoic South Island combination were last after 500m, fifth at the halfway mark and still a distant fourth - 2 seconds off the pace - with just 500m to go. But in a finish reminiscent of Kiwi's Melbourne Cup victory of 1983, they left their rivals for dead.

It got only better the next day.

In a flashback to Rome in 1960, single-sculler Mahe Drysdale and the perfect pair of Eric Murray and Hamish Bond reprised the Golden Hour when they put the exclamation points on dominant Olympic cycles.

There had been a lot of nervous Kiwis that morning. Everyone knew the stakes. Bond and Murray had never lost since they formed as a pair, but needed their coronation. For Drysdale,a five-time world champion, it was all about redemption after illness had torpedoed his campaign in Beijing.

Bond and Murray, who had smashed the world record in their heat, completed their half of the bargain in typical dominant fashion, making mincemeat of the field from the 500m mark.

Drysdale's race was tougher, more sapping, more dramatic. It was as though every Kiwi held their breath for six minutes, riding their man to a victory he richly deserved. When it became clear he was going to hold out Czech rival Ondrej Synek nervous tension turned to joyous celebration.

For the rest of the day out in Buckinghamshire you could spot the New Zealanders by the goofy grins on their faces. Never had we been prouder.

It ended up being that sort of Games. Three more golds would come - though one we wouldn't know about until after all was said and done - as would two silver and four more bronzes.

All were memorable. Women's 470 pair Polly Powrie and Jo Aleh secured the first sailing gold outside of boardsailing since a boyish Coutts had stormed to victory in the Finn back in 1984. Just for good measure, Peter Burling and Blair Tuke added silver in the 49er in Weymouth.

Little Lisa Carrington saved the best for last when she powered home to a brilliant gold in the final of the K1 200m at Eton Dorney, sparking more Kiwi celebrations at a venue that had already seen its fair share.

And of course tears would eventually turn to cheers for shot put colossus Valerie Adams as her emotional silver medal finish on the night became gold soon after when Belarus' Nadzeya Ostapchuk was unearthed as a drugs cheat.

That moment of vindication, when Adams found she had retained her gold after all, completed a draining rollercoaster ride for the New Zealander who had been undone by administration snafus throughout her time in London.

Of course, not every medal has that golden hue, but the silver won by Sarah Walker, BMX, and bronzes added by the equestrian team, cycling's men's pursuiters, by kierin rider Simon van Velthooven and by lightweight rowing double Storm Uru and Peter Taylor also left vivid memories.

Who will forget the emotions shown by Walker as she rode with such courage and conviction to that silver, or the drama of van Velthooven's excruciating wait to see whether he would be awarded his bronze, or the celebrations in Greenwich as evergreen eventers Mark Todd and Andrew Nicholson added to their Olympic haul?

Yes, it was a good time to be a Kiwi. To be loud and proud.

Even if those damn Brits were too busy with their own party to notice.

THE GOOD

London's hosting

- Organised, secure and happy, dubbed the greatest modern Games.

- Near-hysterical pre-event fears about security and weather dissolved into thin air as the UK laid on a highly successful Games both on and off-field.

- There was excellent transport, world-class venues, helpful volunteers and a nation captivated by the biggest sporting event. This month the UK National Audit Office even produced a positive review declaring London 2012 delivered value for money.

The Paralympic Games

- Executed just as well as its Olympic sister, television ratings shot through the roof for this year's Paralympic Games - watched by a global audience of 3.4 billion.

- The international exposure should bring the Paralympic movement unprecedented momentum, punctuated brilliantly by the moral victory in Oscar Pistorius' being allowed to compete against able-bodied athletes in the Olympics.

THE BAD

Empty seats

- The only negative story which endured for any significant amount of time was outrage and embarrassment at the number of empty seats during the first week of the Games.

- Unused corporate tickets were blamed for massive shortfalls which left over 12,000 seats vacant on day two. While frustrated public and athletes' families were told venues had sold out while schoolchildren and off-duty soldiers were brought in by the bus-load in an attempt to plug the gaps.

Korean flag blunder

- Hours before the opening ceremony Olympic officials drop a political howler. A women's football match between North Korea and Colombia was significantly delayed after images of the North Korean team were flashed up on big screens inside Hampden Park - beside the flag of bitter neighbours South Korea.

- The Korean team refused to take the field for an hour and the London Organising Committee was forced into issuing an apology, citing human error for an accident which was ''clearly an embarrassment.''

THE UGLY

Val-gate

- One of the most embarrassing series of blunders ever seen in New Zealand sport.

- First, officials forgot to register their top star for the Games and the day before competition had to grovel to have Valerie Adams instated. They also messed up her accommodation in the Olympic village and her uniform despite having months to get organised.

- Then came the drug scandal as Belarusian steroid cheat, and initial gold medal winner, Nadzeya Ostapchuk was exposed and banned - instating Adams as the rightful champion.

- The bizarre roller-coaster was topped by then-New Zealand Olympic Committee chef de mission Dave Currie infamously selling-out a Kiwi team member, blaming Raylene Bates for the entry list error at a fierce press conference - reneging on a deal struck personally with Adams just hours prior.

Cyclist killed

- Day six of the Games saw 28-year-old Dan Harris killed when an official London 2012 bus, transporting journalists around venues, knocked him down near the Olympic Park.

- Harris, from Ilford in Greater London, was dragged under the wheels of the double-decker bus and pronounced dead at the scene.

- The fatal incident prompted Tour de France champion and Britain's freshly-crowned Olympic time trial champion, Bradley Wiggins, to call for legislation in making crash helmets compulsory.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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