New Zealand’s gold medal pioneer

Malcolm Champion set a standard a century ago that today’s New Zealand Olympic athletes are desperate to match.

Champion, swimming for Australasia at the 1912 Stockholm Olympics, became the first New Zealander to win a games gold medal. He was part of a crack 4 x 200m freestyle relay team that on July 15, 1912, not only destroyed the favoured American team by nine seconds, but also set a world record.

New Zealand has produced many wonderful Olympic heroes in the ensuing 100 years, but few had Champion’s fascinating background.

He was born in 1883 on Norfolk Island. His father, Walter, was a sea captain who traded around the Pacific and his mother was a descendant of Bounty mutineer Matthew Quaid.

When Malcolm was 11, his family moved to Auckland and he soon proved himself an outstanding swimmer.

Because he had done all his swimming in lagoons and in the open sea, he had to work hard to learn the arts of starting and turning.

At his first national championship, in Christchurch in 1901, he caused a sensation by cleaning up every freestyle title from 100 yards to the mile. He duplicated the feat at several other national championships.

Until World War I, he was the best swimmer in the country, though he did have to overcome the slight problem of being suspended for life in 1902 on the grounds of professionalism. In Champion’s case, “life” lasted five years.

He four times made overseas trips with New Zealand teams, including to the Festival of the Empire in England in 1911.

The big one, however, was the 1912 Olympics, where he carried Australasia’s flag in the opening ceremony and competed in the 400m, 1500m and relay.
He reached the semi-finals of the 400m and the final of the 1500m, which he withdrew from after 800m.

The New Zealander then teamed with Australians Harold Hardwick, Cecil Healy and Les Boardman – all big names in world swimming – for the 4 x 200m. The quartet easily won their heat and lined up against the United States, Britain, Germany and Hungary in the final.

Healy led off with a leg of 2min 31s and touched level with the American, Perry McGillivray. Champion swam right up to his best to clock 2min 33 and send Boardman away on the third leg with a 10-yard lead. Boardman managed 2min 35s and Hardwick was then left with the task of holding off the great Hawaiian swimmer Duke Kahanomoku, who had earlier won the 100m.

Kahanomoku drew level at the halfway mark, but the Australian’s stamina told and he pulled away.

The winning time was 10min 11.6s.

Champion lived in Auckland until his death in 1939, aged 55. He was the custodian of the
Auckland Tepid Baths and did a good deal of coaching. He lived before the age of celebrity, however, and was not feted as a person with his Olympic record would be now.

At the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the American 4 x 200m freestyle relay team, anchored by wonder swimmer Michael Phelps, won in a world record of 6min 58.56s. Phelps could have raced the 1912 champions by himself and won by two minutes!

But that’s not to denigrate in the slightest Champion and his team-mates. They did not fly to Europe and acclimatise and take part in a carefully planned lead-up campaign.

They sailed across the world, and struggled hard to retain any sort of fitness on the rough and gruelling two-month voyage. They swam in an outdoor pool in choppy water, battling strongish winds and biting cold. They knew little of diet, had no specialist coaches and really competed purely on natural ability.

They were pioneers, and talented pioneers at that.

Malcolm Champion competed in a long-forgotten era. The motor car was in its infancy when he was at his peak. No-one had heard of aerodynamic swimsuits then, never mind jet engines, computers and other marvels of the modern world.

But Champion is an important figure in New Zealand sports history. He showed it was possible for an athlete from tiny New Zealand to turn up at an Olympic Games, take on the best in the world and emerge with a gold medal.

Nearly 200 New Zealanders, including 16 swimmers, would love to follow his example in London over the next couple of weeks.