Norman Richard Read was born at Portsmouth, England, on 13 August 1931, the son of Marjorie Ellen Luff and her husband, Richard Frederick Read, a Royal Navy stoker who later became a painter and decorator. He was brought up at Portsmouth and later Steyning, and after leaving school completed an apprenticeship as a carpenter. He emigrated to New Zealand in 1953, and over the following 40 years was to live in Auckland, Wellington, Hawera, Whangarei and finally New Plymouth. He worked at various times as a carpenter, salesman, grocer and financial agent.
When he arrived in New Zealand Read was an undistinguished race walker – a reputation amply demonstrated when, in his first two seasons here, his best result on the track was a struggling third in a three-man race. However, when controversies led to track walking being dropped internationally in favour of road walking, the much longer distances proved more favourable. In September 1955 he unofficially walked 50 kilometres in the world-class time of 4 hours 36 minutes and 41 seconds, and the following year he won New Zealand titles in both the 20-kilometre and 50-kilometre races.
Passed over by New Zealand and Britain for the Olympic Games to be held in Melbourne in November and December 1956, Read crossed the Tasman and in September won the Australian championship in 4h 30m 17s, only 2 minutes outside the Olympic record. He was hastily added to New Zealand’s team. On the day of the 50-kilometre event he almost missed the start after getting lost in the maze of passages beneath the Melbourne Cricket Ground’s grandstand. For most of the race he walked conservatively, letting others make the pace in temperatures rising above 30° C. He made his challenge over the last 15 kilometres, walking at such a pace that he soon caught the leaders. At the 45-kilometre mark he had a lead of 1 minute 22 seconds, which he continued to increase, eventually winning in 4h 30m 43s. Only 6 competitors completed the course inside 5 hours, and 6 of the 21 starters did not finish at all, a reflection of the exhausting conditions. Read was voted New Zealand’s Sportsman of the Year.
Before the 1960 Olympics he lowered his 50-kilometre time twice in a single week, to 4h 27m 25s and then 4h 21m 23s, which persuaded him to attempt both walking events at Rome. It was brave but risky. Five days after coming fifth in his second string, the 20-kilometre, he failed to finish in his specialty. His best New Zealand time would have won the race by over four minutes. Read was unable to gain selection for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics despite recording his second-fastest time ever (4h 24m 46s). The selectors pronounced it to be ‘only a oncer’, and even when he followed it with his third-fastest time (4h 27m 18s), he was still not considered good enough.
Read’s international career ended in Jamaica in 1966 when, in the sport’s first appearance at the British Empire and Commonwealth Games, he came third in the 20-mile walk. He continued in national competition for another 18 years, finally retiring at the age of 52. In all he won 18 championship gold medals, three silver and four bronze, a feat unmatched by any other New Zealand walker; he also won several Australian and British titles. His only loss in 11 New Zealand championship races over 50 kilometres was his last, in 1981, and his 1965 championship record of 4h 26m 27s was 10 minutes faster than any other New Zealander could do for a quarter of a century afterwards.
Norm Read was such a fair walker that never in his long career was he disqualified or even cautioned. Once he refused to take credit for a personal record time, insisting (correctly) that the track must be short. Though later admitting that cheats had made walking ‘a laugh, a complete mockery’, Read kept his faith in the ultimate goodness of the sport.
He had married Megan Ann Crafar on 29 August 1968 in Whangarei; they had three daughters and a son. Moving to New Plymouth, he formed New Zealand’s first race-walking club, which grew into a nationwide movement. His mana and commitment persuaded the authorities to restore track walking to the national athletics championships, kindling a boom in the sport. As a judge he became only the second New Zealander to officiate at an Olympic Games – in Barcelona in 1992. He was awarded a diploma by the International Amateur Athletic Federation on its 75th jubilee in 1987, and in 1990 he was elected a foundation member of the New Zealand Sports Hall of Fame.
When he suffered a fatal heart attack competing in a veterans’ cycling race at Pirongia on 22 May 1994, Norman Read was serving as president of Athletics New Zealand. He was survived by his wife, Megan, and his children.