Dick Tayler - from dark horse to a Kiwi legend

TONY SMITH
Last updated 05:00 18/01/2014
Dick Tayler
Fairfax NZ
AGONY AND ECSTASY: Dick Tayler wins the 10,000m on the opening day of the 1974 Commonwealth Games in Christchurch.

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Four decades slip away as Kiwi champion Dick Tayler tells Tony Smith about a joyous January day when his gold medal victory kick-started the 1974 Christchurch Commonwealth Games, in the first instalment of a series marking the 40th anniversary next weekend.

It sounds like the sort of fantasy scenario cooked up in a Wellywood studio.

A South Canterbury potato farmer who'd been running 200 miles a week in training drinks three jugs of beer with legendary coach Arthur Lydiard the night before his big race.

He drives to the track in a Holden V8, yarns with his mum, dad and wife, in the stands, warms up with a jog on a golf course and then goes out and wins the 10,000m gold medal on the first day of the Commonwealth Games in Christchurch, with the crowd chanting "black, black, black".

Dick Tayler's victory set the scene for an event still widely regarded as the greatest sporting festival held in New Zealand.

The 1974 Games' most dramatic denouncement was the 1500m final, where gold medallist Filbert Bayi and New Zealand's John Walker shattered the world record before 34,000 fans at QE II Stadium.

But Tayler's opening day victory was the moment when three million Kiwis, many watching the first sporting event ever broadcast on colour television in New Zealand, began to believe they had something special in their midst. He essentially popped the corks for a 10-day party which, in the words of the Duke of Edinburgh, became more than a great sporting occasion.

It was "a major Commonwealth festival" with largely mono-cultural Kiwis openly embracing athletes from African and Caribbean nations.

The Games, Prince Philip, the British Commonwealth Games Federation president, wrote in the Games' official publication, had "never been happier or more successful".

Tayler, now 65, says "if you could have written the ultimate script" for a sporting event, the 1974 Commonwealth Games was it. He still feels fortunate to be the lead actor in the first act, but says everything went to plan.

Superb summer weather after an inclement Christmas-New Year. Precision planning. Typical Kiwi hospitality. Unstinting service by a legion of volunteers. It was, Tayler agrees, an event worthy of its sobriquet - the friendly games.

In winning the 10,000m title, Tayler fulfilled a wish made by Ron Scott, the charismatic chairman of the 1974 Commonwealth Games Committee.

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Scott presented the medals when Tayler won the 1973 New Zealand cross-country race at Christchurch's Cuthberts Green. The Games' chief said: "We are hoping a New Zealander can kick-start the Games on the first day."

Tayler didn't feel any external pressure, but he was determined to atone for disappointing performances at the 1970 Edinburgh Commonwealth Games and the 1972 Munich Olympics.

At the instigation of his Otago-based coach, Alistair McMurran, Tayler had become one of "Arthur's boys". He signed on with Arthur Lydiard - the mentor of Olympic champions Peter Snell and Murray Halberg - in 1972.

The morning after the cross-country triumph in 1973, the pair sat down and plotted their Commonwealth Games campaign.

Lydiard persuaded Tayler to leave the family farm and move to Blenheim, his wife's home town. He wanted his charge to train in the midday Marlborough heat and north-westerly conditions he'd be likely to experience at the Commonwealth Games in Christchurch. He doubled Tayler's training miles (no metrics then) from 100 to 200.

Tayler says he couldn't have achieved what he did without Lydiard's influence.

The master coach even convinced him to skip the opening ceremony to rest his legs for raceday.

"I was gutted, initially," Tayler said. "I wanted to be part of the opening ceremony. My family and friends were in the stands, it was

going to be quite special. But Arthur said he wanted me hyped up for the next day, the day of the race, not the day before.

"You didn't often argue with Arthur, but I said, ‘but Arthur, it's compulsory . . '. He said, ‘That's fine Richard. You check in on the bus, then go to the toilet and don't come back'."

It's commonplace now for athletes competing early in the programme to skip the opening ceremony. But Tayler was the only one among the 148-member New Zealand team who didn't go to the 1974 curtainraiser.

"Looking back, it was the right decision. Arthur was ahead of his time."

Lydiard insisted he and Tayler share a beer at the Bush Inn pub in Riccarton, near the athletes' village in the University of Canterbury halls of residence. They slugged three jugs while Lydiard fished the race plan out of his pocket and guided Tayler through it, right down to specific lap times.

"He didn't have times for the first three laps or the last three," Tayler said. "He reckoned the others would go out fast in the first three and he didn't want me to do that, and he said I wouldn't hear the last three lap times, or the bell on the last lap, because by then I'd have other things on my mind.

"Before we finished our third jug and went back to the village, Arthur said: ‘You are not the best athlete in the field tomorrow, Richard, but you are the best prepared'.

"He never mentioned anything about finishing first, second or third. He took all that pressure off me."

Tayler was "totally relaxed" on the day of the race. He and Lydiard jogged around the village, a home away from home for 1600 athletes from 38 nations, grabbed some toast and honey and a cup of tea - "Arthur loved a cuppa" - and jumped into a V8 Holden about 1.15pm to head to the QE II track for a 3.15pm start.

These days athletes go through an elaborate warm-up routine while wearing headphones to shut out any outside distraction. Tayler found his family in the stands and chatted amiably without any sign of nerves.

"My mum said later that my dad commented that he'd come all this way [from Winchester, South Canterbury] to watch his son run and he wasn't even nervous!"

Tayler limbered up on the Ascot golf course to stay away from his race rivals. He recalls seeing "a big crowd, which was a buzz in itself."

The 10,000m was the first track and field final. All the talk centred on England's world record holder David Bedford, his compatriot David Black and a clutch of Kenyans, who were making their mark on the world stage.

Tayler was, in most pundits' eyes, the dark horse in the black singlet.

A 10,000m race involves 25 laps. Suffice to say the Lydiard-Tayler plan went exactly to script.

They knew Bedford liked to go out hard early and that the Kenyans were also instinctively front runners. Lydiard predicted the heat - Tayler says it was "30-degrees plus, that day and quite blustery" - would take its toll on athletes unaccustomed to Canterbury conditions. Most of the big guns, he predicted, would "go out too hard, too far".

Tayler stuck strictly to Lydiard's lap times and was running "under world record pace" as the Englishmen and Kenyans jostled and jockeyed for position in the race's early stages.

Then the wall of noise hit him. Television commentator Keith Quinn dubbed it "the QE II roar", a deafening din never before experienced in a New Zealand sporting stadium.

"I'll never forget the crowd," Tayler says. "The whole stadium were chanting ‘black, black, black.' It was unbelievable."

It was also momentarily confusing. "The guy in front of me was black and the guy in front of him was named Black." Tayler wondered who they were cheering for. "Then the crowd changed it to ‘Tayler'. That put a lot of pressure on me."

Tayler resisted the temptation to surge to the front to please the crowd. He knew he had to follow Lydiard's orders.

The final few laps were a bit of blur. Bedford was struggling, but Black "put on a 60sec lap" with three laps to go. That wasn't a big deal for Tayler, who was confident he'd covered every contingency in his training.

"Arthur was right. I wasn't hearing the lap times [at the end of the race] and I didn't hear the bell."

He made his big move with 300m to go and hit the front heading for the back straight.

"I couldn't hear behind me because of the crowd. We didn't have the Mexican wave then, but it was like a Mexican wave of noise."

Tayler glanced over his shoulder to see Black behind him as he surged to the finish line. He flung his arms in the air, then flopped on his back on the track, doing the 70s equivalent of a double fist-pump before jumping back to this feet. A smile broke out on his side-burned chops but Tayler says his first feeling was "pure disbelief".

"People have said, ‘were you buggered?', but I don't think I was.

"I was just so excited. I felt I owed it to my country because I had failed at Edinburgh and failed in Munich. I was just happy I could pay my family, all the coaches I'd had [Bruce Savage in Timaru, Lyn Rayner, Alan Potts and Ali McMurran in Dunedin and Lydiard], and the Olympic and Commonwealth Games Association back for their support."

Tayler, who set a Commonwealth Games record time of 27 minutes 48.6 seconds, quips that he started the day as "Richard Tayler, but left the track as Dick, thanks to Keith Quinn. My mother never forgave him for that, in a nice way."

The usual post-race palaver followed. Official Alan Kitto stuck to Tayler like glue till the gold medal winner passed a urine sample for the drug testers.

There was also a press conference where Tayler said: "What you've done or might have done counts for nothing. It's on the day that matters."

Everyone wanted to slap the Kiwi champion's back, but Tayler remembers a special moment with Lydiard under the stand. "We shook hands and I thanked him for giving me my day in the sun. It was quite emotional; he was crying so I decided ‘I'm going to cry, too'. Nowadays, I would have given him a cuddle, but you didn't do that in the 1970s."

The emotions continued to flow at the medals ceremony as the QEII crowd stood as one to salute Tayler as the Duke of Edinburgh draped the gold medal around his neck.

Tayler was also interviewed for the 6pm television news in full technicolour. These days, he admits, he would have "laired up" and celebrated his success. But in 1974 he simply went around to his parents' motel and "gave Mum my medal".

But, the impact of the importance of his first-day victory did strike home as he remembered Ron Scott's cross-country comment.

Tayler had been in Edinburgh in 1970 and saw the galvanic effect of Scotsman Lachie Stewart's first-day 10,000m victory had on the Scottish public.

He knew his own success would spark something similar in New Zealand.

"The whole country got behind it. Ticket sales picked up and then we had Jaynie Parkhouse and Mark Treffers [win gold] in the pool, John Walker got a great third in the 800m and a silver in the 1500m to Bayi, and our weightlifters and our bowlers won golds, too.

"There were so many great, positive things with Kiwis going well. The weather was great, the atmosphere was great and the overseas athletes loved it because they were so well cared for and it was great how all the volunteers gave their time to make it a success."

Tayler later developed arthritis which ended his athletics career prematurely. In recent years he's switched his sporting allegiance to rugby. He's a long-time president of the Canterbury Rugby Supporters Club.

But he's still best remembered for his track and field feats and was awarded the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to athletics in the 2014 New Year's honours list.

They say the Melbourne Cup is the race that stops a nation. Dick Tayler's 10,000m triumph didn't just stop a nation, it inspired one - for the 10-day duration of the 1974 Commonwealth Games and a lot longer.

KIWI MEDALISTS

■ GOLD

Dick Tayler (10,000m track and field)

Robin Tait (discus, track and field)

New Zealand four bowling team (David Baldwin, Kerry Clark, John Somerville, Gordon Jolly)

David Aspin (men's 82kg freestyle wrestling)

Jaynie Parkhouse (women's 800m freestyle, swimming)

Mark Treffers (men's 400 individual medley, swimming)

Graham May (super heavyweight weightlifting)

Tony Ebert (75kg weightlifting)

Maurice Gordon (fullbore rifle shooting)

■ SILVER

John Walker (1500m, track and field)

Valerie Young (shot put, track and field)

Jack Foster (men's marathon)

Sue Haden (800m, track and field)

Bill Byrne (light-heavyweight boxing)

Mark Treffers (1500m freestyle, swimming)

Brian Marsden (90kg, weightlifting)

John Bolton (110kg, weightlifting)]

■ BRONZE

John Walker (800m, track and field)

Bevan Smith (200m, track and field)

Robert Colley (lightweight, boxing)

Les Rackley Jr (middleweight, boxing)

Lance Revill (light-middleweight, boxing)

Robert McDonald, Phil Skoglund (men's pair, bowling)

Philip Harland, Paul Medhurst (track tandem sprint, cycling)

Paul Brydon, Russell Nant, Blair Stockwell, Rene Heyde (4000m team pursuit, track cycling)

Bruce McMillan (men's 25m rapid fire pistol)

John Coutts (200m butterfly, swimming)

Jaynie Parkhouse (400m freestyle, swimming)

Susan Hunter (200m individual medley, swimming)

Susan Hunter (400m individual medley, swimming)

Rory Barrett (110kg, weightlifting)

Brian Duffy (60kg, weightlifting)

Bruce Cameron (67.5kg, weightlifting)

Gary Knight (100+kg freestyle wrestling)

Gordon Mackay (74kg freestyle wrestling)

- The Press

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