Story: Olympic and Commonwealth games

Page 7. The early 21st century at the Olympics

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Triathlon triumphs

Triathlon was introduced to the Olympics at Sydney in 2000. New Zealander Hamish Carter won the men’s event at the 2004 Athens Olympics and compatriot Bevan Docherty came second.

Docherty maintained New Zealand’s fine triathlon reputation at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, claiming bronze.

Rowing’s second golden era

In the 2000s New Zealand rowing entered a new golden era. The team’s success sprang from the coaching of Dick Tonks and intense training at the rowing squad’s base on Lake Karapiro.

Single sculler Rob Waddell was the first to hit the jackpot with an Olympic gold in Sydney in 2000. The Evers-Swindell twins, Caroline and Georgina, won gold in the double sculls in 2004 and again in 2008.

At the 2008 Beijing Olympics there were bronze medals for single sculler Mahé Drysdale and coxless pair Nathan Twaddle and George Bridgewater.

New Zealand rowers triumphed at the 2012 London Olympics. Nathan Cohen and Joseph Sullivan won New Zealand’s first gold medal at the games in the double sculls. The next day Hamish Bond and Eric Murray won gold in the men’s pair, followed within 45 minutes by Mahé Drysdale’s victory in the single sculls.

Juliette Haigh and Rebecca Scown had earlier secured a bronze in the women’s pair. The rowing medal tally was capped by bronzes for Storm Uru and Peter Taylor in the men’s lightweight double sculls.

‘Super Saturday’

New Zealand won five medals at the 2008 Beijing Olympics on 16 August, which journalists dubbed ‘Super Saturday’. Georgina and Caroline Evers-Swindell defended their double sculls title, winning by just 0.01 seconds. Single sculler Mahé Drysdale, battling a debilitating virus, won bronze, while Nathan Twaddle and George Bridgewater won bronze in the coxless pair. Cyclist Hayden Roulston won silver in the individual pursuit, and Valerie Vili (later Adams) won gold in the shot put with a throw of 20.56 metres.

Beijing, 2008

Beijing provided New Zealand with one of its better Olympic medal hauls. As well as the victories in triathlon and rowing, Valerie Vili (later Adams) won gold in the shot put and Tom Ashley claimed New Zealand’s third gold medal of the games in the men’s sailboard.

Cyclists Sam Bewley, Hayden Roulston, Marc Ryan and Jesse Sergent won bronze in the team pursuit. Roulston made it a double with a silver in the individual pursuit.

Runner Nick Willis continued New Zealand’s 1,500-metres tradition by winning bronze. Following the December 2009 disqualification of Bahraini gold medallist Rashid Ramzi after a positive drugs test, Willis’s medal was upgraded to silver.

Silver turns to gold

Shot putter Valerie Adams defended her Olympic title at London but faced outstanding throwing by her rival, Nadzeya Astapchuk from Belarus. Adams’s best throw of 20.70 metres could not match Astapchuk, whose four throws over 21 metres included a best of 21.36 metres. But Astapchuk subsequently tested positive for the performance-enhancing steroid metenolone. The Belarusian was disqualified and Adams was awarded her second Olympic shot-put gold.

London calling – the 2012 Olympics

New Zealand won six gold medals at the 2012 London Olympics, its highest tally since 1984. In addition to the rowers’ three golds, Lisa Carrington became the first New Zealand woman to win an Olympic kayaking gold medal, in the K1 200 metres; Jo Aleh and Olivia Powrie won the 470-class sailing competition; and Valerie Adams was awarded shot-put gold after the disqualification of Belarusian athlete Nadzeya Astapchuk.

Sarah Walker won silver in the women’s BMX cycling, while Peter Burling and Blair Tuke added to the sailing medals with silver in the men’s 49er class.

New Zealand’s first medal at London was a bronze in the equestrian three-day event for Andrew Nicholson, Jock Paget, Caroline Powell, Jonelle Richards and Mark Todd. New Zealand cyclists won two more bronze medals: Sam Bewley, Aaron Gate, Westley Gough, Marc Ryan and Jesse Sergent came third in the men’s team pursuit, while Simon van Velthooven was third in the men’s keirin.

Rio de Janeiro, 2016

New Zealand ended the Rio games with a then-record total of 18 medals, including 10 across rowing, sailing and canoeing. Mahé Drysdale, Lisa Carrington, and the team of Hamish Bond and Eric Murray all successfully defended their Olympic titles. Carrington also came third in the K1 500m, becoming the first New Zealand woman to win two medals at the same games.

New Zealand continued its Olympic success in athletics with Valerie Adams and Tom Walsh picking up silver and bronze medals respectively in the shot put, runner Nick Willis a bronze medal in the 1,500 metres, and 19-year-old Eliza McCartney a bronze medal in the pole vault.

New Zealand also won silver medals in rugby sevens and golf – the former introduced as an Olympic sport at Rio and the latter making its first appearance since 1904. The women’s sevens team lost the final against Australia, while Lydia Ko came second in golf. 

Laurel Hubbard

Weightlifter Laurel Hubbard broke new ground in Tokyo as the first transgender athlete to compete at the Olympics, in the women's +87-kilogram category. Transgender athletes have been eligible to compete at the Olympics since 2004. Hubbard’s inclusion was welcomed by many, but attracted criticism from people who claimed she had a biological advantage over her fellow competitors, having gone through puberty as a male.

Tokyo, 2020

The 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics in Tokyo was postponed to 2021 because of the COVID-19 pandemic. A record 222 New Zealand athletes returned with 20 medals (11 won by women) – seven gold, six silver and seven bronze. 

New Zealanders once again excelled on the water, winning nine medals across rowing, sailing and canoeing. Canoeist Lisa Carrington’s three gold medals, including her third consecutive victory in the K‑1 200 metres, made her New Zealand's most successful able-bodied Olympian.

Rowers Grace Prendergast and Kerri Gowler won gold in the coxless pair, and silver as members of the women’s eight. Emma Twigg put the disappointment of two previous fourth-place Olympic finishes behind her by winning the single sculls. Rowing’s status as the country’s most successful Olympic sport was confirmed when the men's eight powered home to win gold for the first time since 1972.

Sailors Peter Burling and Blair Tuke picked up their third consecutive Olympic medal with silver in the 49er class. This rounded off an almost perfect year, as they had earlier helped Team New Zealand retain the America’s Cup.

The Black Ferns women’s rugby sevens team claimed New Zealand’s 50th gold medal of all time. Their male counterparts won silver. Two-time gold medallist Dame Valerie Adams won bronze in the shot put at her fifth and final Olympics. Tom Walsh repeated his 2016 performance with a bronze in the men’s shot put. Lydia Ko became the only golfer possessing two Olympic medals with a third-place finish. Medals were also won in boxing, cycling, tennis, trampolining and triathlon.

The Oly Whites achieved their best-ever result in Olympic men’s football, bowing out in the quarter-finals to the host nation, Japan, in a penalty shoot-out.

How to cite this page:

Joseph Romanos, 'Olympic and Commonwealth games - The early 21st century at the Olympics', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/olympic-and-commonwealth-games/page-7 (accessed 24 May 2022)

Story by Joseph Romanos, published 5 Sep 2013, reviewed & revised 16 Sep 2016