Deciding on New Zealand greatest 25 Olympians of all time wasn’t an easy task.
Partly because of the sheer volume of fantastic feats over the last century or so and partly because of the difficulty of comparing performances across a range of sports.
It’s hard enough for the Halberg Award judges every year, but we had to compare the merits of medals won in different eras.
The list was thrashed out by some of the Herald and Radio Sport journalists covering the Rio Games.
We had to agree some early ground rules.
The first was that only gold medallists would be considered. That was a tough call, considering the likes of Nick Willis (silver, 2008), Dick Quax (silver, 1976), Paul Kingsman (bronze, 1988) and Bevan Docherty (silver and bronze, 2004 & 2008) had provided some of our most memorable Olympic moments.
But there had to be a line in the sand.
We also agreed that potential success in Rio wouldn’t be taken into account, so the likes of Hamish Bond and Eric Murray, Valerie Adams and Mahe Drysdale would only be judged on achievements until 2012.
The list was also restricted to the Summer Olympics, otherwise Annalise Coberger, our only winter medallist, may have featured quite prominently.
From an original master list, each of us was tasked with listing our personal top 25.
From there we met, debated each group of five (25-21, etc)and took the majority view.
In general we considered the following factors: The impact of the performance at the time, the relative competitiveness of the sport or field and the rarity of the feat.
It’s unlikely anyone in our lifetimes will match Snell’s three gold medals on the track, nor Danyon Loader’s feats in the pool.
Most of the rest of the top 10 were multiple medallists or responsible for achievements that resonated for decades (the Munich rowing eight, Yvette Williams).
It was a head-scratcher, but in a good way because it was a celebration of success.
1952 Helsinki — Long Jump
Yvette Corlett (nee Williams) won the gold medal in the long jump event at the 1952 Olympic Games in Helsinki.
Corlett's jump of 6.24 metres broke the Games record.
Yvette Corlett's eyes sparkle as much now as they did atop the Olympic dais in Helsinki 64 years ago.
At 87, her inspirational story resonates as if Lord Porritt had just hung the long jump gold medal around her neck.
“The New Zealand supporters came down to the track and carried me around shoulder-high. To see the flag go up and hear the anthem played, that was the highlight of my career.”
Corlett channels serenity. In fact, she puts you at such ease that referencing her in print as “Corlett” rather than “Yvette” seems too formal. Her toothy grin remains as wholesome as it did beaming for the cameras after the Games. With no New Zealand success in 1948 at London, her’s was the country’s first Olympic medal since Jack Lovelock stormed to 1500m glory at Berlin 16 years earlier.
Even today, the disc beams in her hands when removed from its bespoke box. Corlett is immaculately attired for our chat, a nod to a lifetime of methodical preparation, the type which launched her into history as the country’s first female Olympic champion.
She’s had her share of health setbacks. An abscess on the brain was removed 10 years ago, which slowed her speech. She has recovered from bowel cancer and heart surgery. Each time she has fought back stronger.
In Post-World War II New Zealand, Corlett’s sporting story was a kernel of inspiration to battlers in a fledgling welfare state yet to fully benefit from the 1950s boom in living standards. When she sits in her armchair unfurling pristine pages of scrapbooks and photo albums, a current of nostalgia flows through the room. It surges when her hands clasp the wooden pegs her father crafted to mark her run-up.
After two no-jumps, Corlett moved one of those markers back six inches (as per the empirical measurement of the era). If her third attempt overstepped she would exit the competition. A hemisphere away, New Zealanders willed their prime gold medal prospect on through radios in the heart of winter.
“I had to register one,” Corlett says. “But I feared I would jump again and everybody back home would be so disappointed.
“Fortunately my third jump was legal, which put me fourth. The Russian [Aleksandra Chudina] led, but the top six could have another three jumps. On the fourth jump I hit the board. The judge put out his [illegal] red flag initially, then changed it for the [legal] white.”
That jump of 6.24m, a centimetre short of Fanny Blankers-Koen’s world record, led the competition. Corlett would break Blankers-Koen’s mark with a 6.28m leap at Gisborne in February 1954, but this was enough in Helsinki.
Corlett’s composure was crucial in trying circumstances. Darkness is rare in Finnish summers due to the northern location, but the firing of a human cannonball at 11pm each night further limited the prospect of sleep for her and roommate Jean Stewart, the bronze medal-winning backstroker and fellow Otago Girls’ High School alumnus.
Helsinki Olympics 1952 Long jump
|6.24 m||6.14 m||5.92 m|
Corlett also faced the scenario of practising while a couple of Russian Cold War caricatures, in black trench coats and hats, scribbled notes pitside.
“I thought ‘I’ll show them what I can do’ and jumped as far as I could.”
Conversely, Corlett saw little of her Soviet rival outside the competition. Chudina refused to get changed with the rest of the female long jumpers.
Strained knee ligaments contributed to Corlett’s adversity. Britain’s physiotherapist had to be found because New Zealand didn’t have one.
“The sand was at a lower level than the pitch as I ran through the pit. The knee became quite sore so the team chaperone contacted the English masseur. He came over and it was much easier after that.”
The pictures tell Corlett’s story best. After her victory she looks demob happy and, at 23, in the prime of her life.
Adult destinies can often be traced to pivotal childhood moments. Corlett was born Yvette Winifred Williams in Dunedin, the daughter of Tom and Winnie. Her brother Roy became a Commonwealth Games decathlon champion in Kingston in 1966 and a respected sports journalist.
Father Tom offered a hint at the family’s pedigree as a grenade-throwing champion in the Australian army during World War I. Mother Winnie was a highland dancing champion. Meld in the siblings’ legendary competitiveness on the front lawn in anything from hurdling to wrestling, and a champion recipe emerged.
“Life was different,” Corlett says. “There was no TV or cellphones to distract us so we had to make our own fun.”
You don’t have to be Hercule Poirot to decipher some of the other clues to her career path.
“My grandad had a neatly manicured flower garden and we used to try jumping across from one side to the other. I remember him saying ‘don’t ruin my flowers’ so you had to get the jump right. They also had a big pear tree which I loved to climb.
“When I was about 10, I also used to run from the doorway to our bedroom and leap onto the top bunk.”
In 1948 Corlett met fitness instructor Jim Bellwood at an athletic training school in Timaru. He had survived three years in a German POW camp before rehabilitating in England and returning to New Zealand with his Estonian wife Emilie.
“I went to learn the basic elements of different events, then fortunately they came to live in Dunedin,” Corlett says. “On Sundays we’d go to St Clair and St Kilda. Up on the sand dunes we’d practise the hitchkick, leaping off the top.”
When the Bellwoods moved to Auckland, Corlett followed, staying with Aunty Ruby and Uncle Alan in Devonport. She used their spare room to train.
“There were no gymnasiums in those days, so I couldn’t do weight training, but Jim suggested lifting concrete blocks. I made sandbags to hook over my feet so I could lie on my back for leg raises and work on my stomach muscles.”
Army boots were also worn in training schedules because “when they came off you could almost fly”.
Corlett had not heard of the Olympics until the Otago Daily Times sports editor Teddy Isaacs suggested it as an option in 1948. After packing her self-sewn uniform, the world’s No.1 women’s long jumper flew to Helsinki, where her life changed forever.
Corlett's career was short by modern athletic standards. She came to prominence at the 1950 Empire Games with her long jump victory, went to her solitary Olympics, and then won the shot put, discus and long jump at the Empire Games in Vancouver. The latter two results were achieved simultaneously because the Duke of Edinburgh was late. Events were delayed in his ‘honour’.
Amid those halcyon days, Corlett’s homecoming memory from Finland is indelible.
“I stayed in London for six weeks after the Games and competed in different countries. When I got home I thought it [the fanfare] would have died down. Suddenly, I was on my way to Western Springs for a big welcome and a fireworks display.
“My mother and father drove to Auckland to pick me up and we gradually made our way down the island. We were invited to Parliament House to meet the Prime Minister, and, as we headed through the South Island, lots of children and parents stood roadside waving flags and giving me bunches of flowers.
“Finally we arrived in Dunedin where they had organised an open top car to drive down the main street lined in bunting. At the town hall I dreaded making a speech. I preferred performing on the track and in the field.”
Corlett became a household name but, as an amateur, opportunities to capitalise on her fame were limited.
Efforts to name a rose after her and get a health stamp printed in her honour were jettisoned. A 90c stamp was later commissioned before the 2004 Athens Games, but an Yvette Williams ‘rambler’ or ‘climber’ never eventuated because of the New Zealand Olympic Committee’s draconian policy around endorsements in that era.
After marrying Buddy Corlett in 1954, she retired before the Melbourne Olympics. The pair met when working at Auckland’s YMCA, had four children, and were married until his death last year.
Corlett's Howick pad brims with memories of a fulfilled life, but her armchair is strategically positioned in anticipation of this year’s Games.
“I follow all the sports, but particularly track and field and water sports where we have a lot of good medal chances.”
She predicts a record New Zealand medal haul is in prospect.
For the first time since 1952, New Zealand might have more female than male medallists on the dais at a summer Olympics.
When the eyes of those women sparkle at their own achievement, they can thank their pioneering predecessor, Yvette Corlett, for setting the standard.
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