Members of one of New Zealand’s greatest sporting teams have reunited to celebrate the 50th anniversary of their gold medal-winning feat. 

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NEW ZEALAND’S 1972 OLYMPICS ROWING EIGHT. FROM LEFT: GARY ROBERTSON, TREVOR COKER, ATHOL EARL, LINDSAY WILSON, JOHN HUNTER, DICK JOYCE, WYBO VELDMAN, TONY HURT AND SIMON DICKIE.

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THE GOLD MEDAL-WINNING NEW ZEALAND EIGHT AT THE MUNICH OLYMPICS. IN THE FINAL, THEY POWERED TO A LEAD FROM THE START AND WERE NEVER HEADED.

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THE GOLD MEDAL-WINNING NEW ZEALAND EIGHT AT THE MUNICH OLYMPICS. IN THE FINAL, THEY POWERED TO A LEAD FROM THE START AND WERE NEVER HEADED.

On 2 September 1972 at the Munich Olympics, the New Zealand men’s rowing eight beat doubters and dopers to triumph in the sport’s blue riband event. Images of the crew fighting back tears on the victory dais as ‘God Defend New Zealand’ was played for the first time in 20 years, remain one of the country’s most iconic sporting moments. 

Back in early September in Wellington, five of the crew gathered to remember that race and their victory. Dick Joyce, Athol Earl, Lindsay Wilson, John Hunter and Tony Hurt were joined by rowers from other Olympic crews and officials from Rowing New Zealand for a special dinner.

Wybo Veldman and Gary Robertson were unable to make the reunion. Crew member Trevor Coker died from a brain tumour in 1981 aged 31, and cox Simon Dickie, who won medals at three Olympics, died in 2017.

We had a very, very powerful crew, and believe me, when it put its foot down, it went. Dick Joyce

Joyce said the crew had managed some sort of reunion every year since their victory, and while Covid and the death this week of Waikato rowing stalwart and Olympian Gil Cawood had made things difficult, “there was no way you could let this 50-year milestone go by without doing something”. 

Having won the European championships in 1971, the New Zealand eight entered the Munich regatta as favourites. “We had a very, very powerful crew,” remembered Joyce, “and believe me, when it put its foot down, it went.” 

But after they were beaten in the semi-finals by West Germany, coach Rusty Robertson let loose. “He called us all the names under the sun. Words like ‘complacent’ and ‘slack bastards’ were all thrown at us. 

“It was a wake-up call and I think all of us took it on board. And when we went out for the finals, there was a quiet determination.”

Dickie told Joyce after the race that even as they rowed to the start line, the boat was fizzing. “I’m sure that on the day, we were unbeatable,” said Joyce.

“It was one of those races where you’re going so well, you start to think, ‘Hey, are they trying to trick us and let us get out in front, and then they’re going to mow us down in the second half?’”

But in the end, New Zealand crossed the line almost a boat-length ahead of the United States and East Germany. In doing so, the crew of amateurs beat rowers who were effectively professionals paid by their country to row, and some from countries with doping programmes for their athletes.

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NEW ZEALAND’S 1972 OLYMPICS ROWING EIGHT. FROM LEFT: GARY ROBERTSON, TREVOR COKER, ATHOL EARL, LINDSAY WILSON, JOHN HUNTER, DICK JOYCE, WYBO VELDMAN, TONY HURT AND SIMON DICKIE.

When the German Army band played ‘God Defend New Zealand’ instead of the country’s official anthem, ‘God Save the Queen’, to everyone’s surprise the crew were overwhelmed with emotion. Phillip Wilson

International Olympic Committee chairman Avery Brundage, a passionate defender of amateurism, was so taken with the New Zealanders’ victory that he insisted on presenting their gold medals. 

And when the German Army band played ‘God Defend New Zealand’ instead of the country’s official anthem, ‘God Save the Queen’, to everyone’s surprise the crew were overwhelmed with emotion.

The scenes of the black-singleted rowers with quivering chins and tear-filled eyes ensured the crew’s place in New Zealanders’ hearts, and Kiwi sporting legend.

Rowing New Zealand president Ivan Sutherland, who presented several of the crew with legacy medals commemorating their achievements, said the Munich eight’s win cemented New Zealand as an international rowing force, and propelled the sport into the spotlight at home.

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NAOMI BAKER/GETTY IMAGES. PHILLIP WILSON, LEFT, CELEBRATES AFTER WINNING GOLD IN THE MEN’S EIGHT AT THE 2020 TOKYO OLYMPICS.

Phillip Wilson, a member of the 2020 crew, said that even years later, the Munich eight’s win was always talked about in rowing circles. “It’s something people remember really fondly, and we wanted to recreate that.” 

Wilson was in the boat’s number six seat (three in front of the cox) – the same seat Joyce occupied in 1972, and said it had been an honour to meet Joyce after they returned from Tokyo. 

“I think it would be great to get both eights together at some point in the future to share the success of the two crews, and the legacy they have created for rowing in New Zealand.” 

The crew’s Wellington reunion was held on Athol Earl’s 70th birthday, which gave everyone extra reason to celebrate. During dinner, Earl tapped his glass and handed over to Hunter to speak.

“I’d like to propose a toast,” said Hunter, beer in hand, “to those who are not here – and I’m referring to those who have passed on. To absent crew members.”

Front of mind were Trevor Coker, who died of a brain tumour in 1981 aged just 31, and cox Simon Dickie, who was killed after falling from a balcony at his Taupō home in 2017.

They also remembered coach Rusty Robertson, the sometimes-flawed genius who guided the 1968 coxed four (of which Dickie and Joyce were members) and the 1972 eight to Olympic gold medals. “He was a builder from Ōamaru,” recalls Earl. “He knew who needed arse-kicking and who needed patting.”

I think it would be great to get both eights together at some point in the future to share the success of the two crews, and the legacy they have created for rowing in New Zealand. Phillip Wilson

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Rowing New Zealand president Ivan Sutherland rowed with several members of the 1972 eight during his career.

“The significance of that event was beating the East Germans, who were later proven to be a country of (drug) cheats – that was no easy task. To beat them in those circumstances was a marvellous achievement, and it was hugely inspirational.” 

East Germany won medals in all seven races at the regatta, including pipping New Zealand’s coxless four of Ross Collinge, Dudley Storey, Dick Tonks and Noel Mills, who won silver earlier in the day. 

Sutherland later rowed with several of the gold medal-winning crew and was a member of the eight at the 1976 Montreal Olympics, which won a bronze medal – the last time New Zealand would win a medal in the eights until the 2020 Tokyo Olympics when, nearly 50 years after the Munich crew’s famous victory, the New Zealand men’s eight once again took gold. 

Tony Hurt says Robertson understood what was needed to get the best from a crew and make a boat go fast. “But he was also a hard man in terms of discipline – which is good for a coach.

These days, guys won’t do anything unless we talk about it. With Rusty, it was, ‘There’s no talking here, mate, just get on with it. I’m the boss, you do what you’re told.’ “These days, everyone needs a kiss and a cuddle.”

Despite the personal pressure and national expectations that the eight carried into the Olympics, Hurt says the crew remained extremely tight, their egos buried.

“To my memory, there was never a harsh word spoken between any of the guys.”

Hurt, who at 76 is still working on the tools as a plumber in Auckland, says what happened that day in 1972 remains one of the highlights of his life.

When he watches replays of the race, the hairs on the back of his neck still stand up.

And when he looks at his gold medal, he’s filled with memories of good people and good times.

“I never realised I had the potential to be part of it. I just thought: I’m lucky to be here.”

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Tony Hurt, Left, Lynley Earl and Athol Earl catch up at the reunion. Athol celebrated his 70th birthday on the same day.

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Trevor Coker's widow, Sue Phillips, receives his legacy medal for having represented New Zealand overseas in rowing, from Rowing New Zealand President Ivan Sutherland.

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Dick Joyce, right, talks with Rowing Administrator Bill Falconer. Joyce remains one of our most successful Olympians, having won two gold medals in rowing.

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Members of the 1972 Olympic men's rowing eight and their wives have gathered nearly every year since their gold medal victory.

We had to deliver – and we delivered. Dick Joyce

Hurt says being a gold medal-winner provided him with many benefits in later years. Similarly, Lindsay Wilson says the race changed his life. He still gives talks about it, and his winner’s medal needs re-gilding because so many people have touched and held it.

But what was often forgotten was that the road to Munich had been full of sacrifices. During training, the crew got one day off a week – Friday – and that was often spent selling raffle tickets or doing coin trails to raise money to get to Munich, their wives alongside them. 

Like most of the crew, Wilson’s training was fitted around work, and he had a mortgage to pay and a young family to support.

“I was married for a week, and then buggered off to Christchurch for training and was gone for five months.”

When they returned from the Olympics, heroes in their own land, there was no time for posturing.

“I went to work on Monday morning,” remembers Wilson.

Sue Phillips, Trevor Coker’s widow, who also attended the reunion, says her teacher’s salary supported the just-married couple while Coker trained. Phillips was travelling by ferry from Wellington to Lyttelton when the Olympic final took place on the other side of the world. She went to the purser’s office, explained her situation, and asked if there was any way she could listen to the race.

She was ushered into an officers’ mess where a radio relayed the race, and was surrounded by bearded seamen who politely congratulated her afterwards while she struggled to keep her emotions in check.

As soon as she left the room, Phillips sprinted down the passageway whooping. Hunter’s wife, Liz, watched the race on a tiny black-and-white TV in the sunroom of her parents’ home in Scotland.

The pair had married just before he left for the Olympics, and wrote to each other every day they were apart. She still has all their letters.

Liz watched the final, flanked by her father clutching a bottle of whisky to celebrate with and her mother with a bucket of water to calm her daughter down. When the crew won, she says, “I didn’t know whether to pick up the whisky or the water first. I just threw myself onto the couch in sort of hysteria, really. It would have made a damn good film.”

As dessert plates were scraped and coffees arrived, seats were swapped as people moved around the table to catch up with everyone.

Long-time rowing administrator Bill Falconer told the crew he was in Washington when the race happened and ran to get a newspaper to find out the result. However, all it mentioned was that the United States had beaten East Germany. Falconer had to phone home to ask where New Zealand had finished.

“I don’t know whether you recognise the centrality of the position and the role you have within the rest of the New Zealand rowing community,” Falconer told the crew. “You are legends, and thank God our legends are here with us.”

As the crew and colleagues drifted downstairs for nightcaps and goodbyes, Dick Joyce sat smiling, a beer in front of him. The Wellington engineer had organised the event, knowing how important the events of 50 years ago and their enduring friendships were.

“When you’re racing, you’re pushing your body to the extreme. And if you doubt that anybody in the boat is going to do the same, then you’re not going to do it.

“So part of the teamwork of the crew is confidence that everybody is going to give it their all. Hence, you become a very close-knit team – and that close-knit team obviously stays over the years.

“It’s a great feeling to come to something like this and sit down with your old mates and tell a few stories, and tell a few lies. We were not prepared to let ourselves down, we were not prepared to let all the people who helped us get there down.

“We had to deliver – and we delivered.”

Mike White

Mike White

Senior Reporter for Stuff