Hard News by Russell Brown


When the Game is Over

The National Film Unit documentary 1950 British Empire Games opens with a vision of New Zealand as we liked to see it then, and still do now, in our fonder moments.

"Here in New Zealand, from mountain-tops to the sea, we work and play against a variety of ever-changing backgrounds," chimes the uncredited narrator over a montage of natural delights. "The good earth is our security. Blue skies and open air call us to sport. And we like sport."

Indeed, we liked sport well enough that nearly a quarter of a million of us attended the 1950 games events -- 100,000 more than Vancouver could muster four years later.  The record shows that New Zealanders Harold Nelson and Yvette Williams won gold medals in the men's six mile and the women's "broad jump" respectively. By all accounts, New Zealand's first international sporting tournament was a raging success.

Well, nearly all accounts. A year after the games, the legendary American author James A. Michener told a very different story in his collection Return to Paradise:

"Until recently New Zealanders refused to believe that their living standards had slipped. Then, in 1950, they played host to the Empire Games, which brought newsmen from all parts of the Commonwealth The result was some of the most shocking criticism a country has ever had to absorb, and all of it delivered by members of the family …

"New Zealand was shocked by the reports of its friends. In the discussions that followed this seemed to be the common explanation: 'Everyone's got it to easy. We've all got minimum wages, social security. No one gives a hang'."

Sixty years on, we're virtually obliged to take Michener's word for this crisis of confidence, because as far as I can tell it is absent from any established history of the 1950 games. It is, however, probably true. Auckland's harbour may have sparkled gaily in the sun as big silver flying boats touched down with their cargo of athletes -- but after the sun went down, very little sparkled at all.

Pubs shut at six, restaurants were virtually illegal and New Zealand was, to the outside eye, terribly, terribly dull. (It probably didn't help that the games village was at Ardmore, more than 20 miles from the central city.) Whatever awareness of that fact we had foisted on us by the visiting media, we filed carefully in the bottom drawer of the national subconscious.

By the time the games came back our way in 1974, we had mastered the art of jaundice: "Christchurch, New Zealand, the Commonwealth Games" intones the introduction to Games 74, Arthur Everard's film for the NFU. "After the inevitable wrangles, politicking, effort and courage, the stage is ready. This will be the centre for 10 days. Not a lifetime, but long enough for emotions to be felt, themes to emerge -- even the odd myth to be created."

This is a rather different affair from the 1950 film. The tone of the narrative verges on the sullen. It shows the victors, but notes, almost morosely, that most competitors lose. It's not until the closing ceremony, where the athletes broke ranks and staged what the film calls "the giant happening" that the tone really lightens. Yet the national memory of 1974 is more in line with the giant cheesefest of 'Join Together', Steve Allen's official games song, than whatever was on the minds of the film-makers.

So what will be our mood when the Rugby World Cup, the largest sports tournament New Zealand will ever stage, kicks off at the venue of the 1950 games, Eden Park? Well, it's been rough.

Games 74 opens with a sweeping aerial shot of New Brighton beach, the broad bright streets of the seaside suburbs and the new, purpose-built stadium at QEII Park. It is shocking to contemplate that those streets are ravaged and the stadium is condemned as a consequence of Christchurch's earthquakes. There will be no matches in the city.

The "Urewera 18" trials, which would doubtless have made an excellent angle for foreign journalists, are out of the frame thanks to yet another delay on an endless road to court. But a covert election campaign will play out. Protests will happen. Money will be an issue. There will be at least one massive media cringe in response to foreign criticism of our restaurants or hotels.

And yet, history says we'll forget whatever else troubled us at the time. When we think of the 1987 Rugby World Cup, we don't recall that it, too, was squeezed between a major earthquake and a general election. We recall John Kirwan's great try. And most of all, we remember who won.

This column was originally published in the September issue of Red Bulletin magazine, shortly before the opening of Rugby World Cup 2011.

You can watch 1950 British Empire Games and Games 74 in full at nzonscreen.com.

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