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March 19, 2018 | by  | in Features |
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The Year We Ruined the Olympics

New Zealand in 1976 is an interesting time. Men are sporting awful moustaches. Women are wearing blue eyeshadow. The first McDonald’s outlet is opened in Porirua. Robert Muldoon is Prime Minister. The All Blacks are touring South Africa, an apartheid regime. In response, 28 African nations boycott the Montreal Olympics. New Zealand’s reputation is in tatters on the world stage. How did this happen, and how come we’re not talking about it?

Between 1948 and 1991, South Africa operated an apartheid regime, a legislated system of racial hierarchy that oppressed the black population. The international community condemned apartheid, and restricted or flat out declined relationships with South Africa. In 1964, South Africa was banned from the Tokyo Olympics, and four years later they were expelled altogether from the International Olympic Committee. In the early 1970s, South Africa’s primary sporting partners in rugby and cricket maintained a consistent position, refusing to play with South Africa. In 1972, Australia severed sporting contact with South Africa, after tens of thousands rioted following a 1971 tour of the South African rugby team, the Springboks.  In 1974, the United Kingdom followed suit, promising to end their sporting relationship. In 1973, Prime Minister Norman Kirk stopped the proposed Springboks tour of New Zealand.

New Zealand’s position deviated with the election of a new National government in 1975, led by Robert Muldoon. To capture the attention of the provincial heartland, National had promised not to  interfere with any future sporting tours. Although National disagreed with the apartheid regime, they believed sports and politics were separate affairs. The promise worked, and National won a landslide victory. This view continued to be inconsistent with the international community, and in November 1975 the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution calling on all sporting organisations to commit to anti-discriminatory policies.

Turn again to 1976. An All Blacks tour of South Africa was scheduled to begin at the end of June. Māori and Samoan All Blacks were given “honourary white” status so they could play against white Springboks. The international community was alarmed by the tour. The chair of the Supreme Council of Sport in Africa (SCSA), Abraham Ordia, visited New Zealand to try and persuade the New Zealand Rugby Football Union (NZRFU) and the Government to cancel the tour. Ordia warned the government that there would be repercussions at the upcoming Montreal Olympics if the tour proceeded. Muldoon refused to meet with him, and made his refusal publicly known in the press, saying Ordia could “stew in his own juice”.

On the 16th of June in Soweto, a town near Johannesburg, 20,000 black children marched in the streets, protesting for the right to be taught in their own languages instead of Afrikaans. The South African police brutally massacred hundreds of children to quash the demonstration. Despite the violence in Soweto reinforcing the horrific capability of the apartheid regime, preparations for the All Blacks tour progressed. The tour was given the blessing of the Muldoon government, and the Under-Secretary for Sport Ken Comber travelled up to Auckland to give the players a proper send-off.

To protest New Zealand’s continued sporting relationship with South Africa, the Supreme Council for Sport in Africa quickly organised a boycott of the Montreal Olympics, scheduled to begin on the 17th of July. The boycott was so hastily put together that some African teams arrived in Montreal and immediately flew home. Some even attended the opening ceremony, only to later boycott. Altogether, 28 African nations boycotted. Only 88 nations competed, making it the smallest Olympics since the 1960 Rome Games. This was particularly significant in the events that African teams traditionally dominated – track and field lost 200 athletes.

Filbert Bayi was a medal prospect for Tanzania in the 1500m run, but did not compete due to the boycott. Bayi’s biggest rival was our own John Walker, who had beaten him previously in the 1974 Commonwealth Games. Bayi later said, “black kids were killed in Soweto. [The boycott] became inevitable, but for the athletes it was very painful. We had trained for four years. In my heart, I would have loved to run”. In Montreal, Walker won the gold medal.

As the list of countries boycotting grew, so did the tension between the New Zealand delegation and the Supreme Council in Montreal. The Vice-President of the SCSA, Jean-Claude Ganga, told reporters: “In sport, man is man, and after the massacre of Soweto, it is not a problem of sport only, it is a humanitarian problem. It is not right.” The New Zealand Olympic delegation were unrepentant. Lance Cross, the head of the NZ Olympic and Commonwealth Games Association (NZOCGA) said it was beyond the scope of the organisation, because the NZRFU was separate to the NZOCGA. This was not true – the NZRFU was in fact a paid up member of the NZOCGA. A reporter asked Cross if he was embarrassed about the boycott. Cross said he had never been embarrassed about anything in his life. The reality is, for New Zealanders in Montreal, the boycott was hugely embarrassing. Journalists sent to cover the games pretended to be Australian to avoid scrutiny.

New Zealand media coverage of Montreal focussed on our sporting success, with limited stories devoted to the boycott. “Special Cheer for NZ At Games Opening”, declared the New Zealand Herald, “offsetting the boycott imposed by more than a score of African and Arab nations”. Editorials and cartoons in the major newspapers of the time were entirely unsympathetic to the African boycott, and accuse the SCSA  of hijacking the Games to further their own agenda, at the expense of the athletes. [see cartoon attached]

The New Zealand Olympic team returned home with 4 medals. The All Blacks returned in August, defeated by the Springboks 3-1 in the test series. The SCSA agitated for a further boycott of the 1978 Commonwealth Games, unless New Zealand cut sporting contact with South Africa. In 1977, Commonwealth nations, including New Zealand, agreed to discourage sporting contact with South Africa in the Gleneagles agreement, causing most African nations to call off their proposed boycott. However, the impact of this agreement was limited, as it was ignored by Muldoon’s government in 1981 when the Springboks toured New Zealand.

Everyone remembers the 1981 tour as a pivotal moment in NZ history, as a collision of values. Yet we don’t seem to talk about the events of 1976. It’s less of a cultural reference point; we don’t study it in school, there’s no TV movie about it. Historian Charlotte MacDonald says: “New Zealand remembers 1981 as the year of large scale protest and debate of sporting contacts with South Africa – and it was a really important year – but I think what people don’t remember is the big decade of protest that preceded it, and the much longer debate, questioning, and disquiet.” Maybe we don’t talk about it because it’s embarrassing. Despite the triumphant reports in the domestic press, internationally NZ was humiliated. It is true that other nations were playing sports with South Africa – gymnastics, golf, and tennis. But rugby matters more, as it was one of the most popular sports in South Africa, particularly to the white population. The 1976 boycott is an example of New Zealand alone on a global platform, but on the wrong side of history: encouraging sporting contact with an apartheid regime. “It’s a time when New Zealand became a pariah on the world stage”, MacDonald says.

Maybe we don’t talk about it because sport is so important to our identity as New Zealanders. Micheal Warren, a PhD candidate writing his thesis on New Zealand identity and the Olympics, notes: “when you think back to New Zealand’s earliest forays into the international sphere, rugby was there. Think about the 1905 tour of Great Britain, and the All Blacks basically won every game except one. When you think about the ideas that New Zealanders think about themselves – the underdog, punching above our weight, kiwi ingenuity, all that stuff – it plays out best in sport.” Sporting success is extremely important to New Zealanders, and there is no greater platform to showcase this than the Olympics. As Warren observes, we love to see success on the Olympic medal table. Is there any other nation more fixated on the per-capita table than us?

It seems crazy now, for a New Zealand government to turn their back on international consensus and protect sporting contact with a nation that committed horrific human rights abuses. But we shouldn’t forget that we once did. It’s an important part of our history, the year we ruined the Olympics.

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