In New Zealand older people have always been involved in sport and recreation. Hunting, fishing and swimming, the most recreational activities in 19th-century New Zealand, have no age restrictions. Outdoor sports and recreational activities such as tramping, mountaineering, boating, skiing and cycling are open to anyone fit enough to participate, regardless of age.
New Zealand was quick to introduce many organised sports that traditionally cater for older participants. These include archery, lawn and indoor bowls, croquet, golf, equestrian sports, sailing, shooting and tennis. During the 1960s the international mass movement for exercise in later life took off, influenced by New Zealander Arthur Lydiard’s promotion of jogging.
The structure of New Zealand’s sports clubs caters for a range of ages. University sports clubs keep membership open on a lifetime basis, with alumni and staff on the same teams as students (unlike American college sports, which are strictly confined to students). The urban trend of ‘pay-by-the-hour’ recreation, centred on commercial gyms or pools, also suits older people.
Competitive sport for older people is often referred to as masters sport or veterans’ sport. In track and field the term ‘masters’ has replaced the older term ‘veterans’.
New Zealand’s best lawn bowlers have typically been older than most of the competitors in other sports. At the Commonwealth Games the bowls team was traditionally a target for banter. On one occasion, the youthful boxing and cycling squads were leaving the Games village for their early-morning training when they met the middle-aged Kiwi bowlers returning from a long night of revelry. The encounter became the stuff of sports legend.
Many notable senior sportspeople and fitness advocates emerged in New Zealand.
- Publisher A. H. Reed climbed Mounts Taranaki, Ruapehu and Ngāuruhoe in his 80s. Reed attracted great public attention when he completed a walk from North Cape to Bluff in 1960–61, at the age of 85.
- Burt Munro, subject of the film The world's fastest Indian, broke the world under-1,000-cc motorcycling speed record on Bonneville Salt Flats, Utah. He achieved this on three separate occasions, in 1962, 1966 and 1967, between the ages of 63 and 68.
- Bill Pratney (Wiremu Paratane) of Tainui began his elite cycle racing career in 1926. He raced competitively until he was 47, winning major events including the 1955 Timaru to Christchurch 160-kilometre race. Known lifelong as ‘the Iron Man’, Pratney returned to competition at the age of 71, riding his last race when he was 85.
- Golfer Bob Charles played well in the British Open up to the age of 60, extending his career further when the Seniors Tour and Seniors Championships started in 1980. Charles won the Senior British Open in 1993, 30 years after winning the Open.
- The oldest All Black on record was Edward ‘Ned’ Hughes, who played against South Africa aged 40 in 1921, having won his first All Black cap in 1907.
Feathers, horse pee and ginger
Jockey Noel Harris won the New Zealand Derby in 2000 at 45 and the Kelt Capital Stakes at 52. He rode in the Melbourne Cup at 52 and won the Telegraph Handicap at 55. After this last win, he promptly denied rumours of retirement: ‘I always say another year or two.’1 Known for his jokes, Harris once told journalists that he had reduced his middle-aged weight by a diet of ‘feathers and horse pee and ginger’.2 He was also famed for a fine sense of balance and tactical judgment that were not blunted with age. Noel Harris retired from race riding in 2015, aged 60.
Track and field longevity
At the age of 44, Stan Lay was placed sixth in the javelin at the 1950 Empire Games. 40-year-old Colleen Mills ran for New Zealand in the 1974 Commonwealth Games 400 metres, an event where youth has the advantage. Triple Olympic track gold medallist Peter Snell transferred to the triathlon and orienteering while living in the US later in life. He won many events, including the US Men's 65+ Orienteering Championship in 2003.
Keep on running
New Zealand's older athletes have been most outstanding in distance running. Jack Foster ran Olympic marathons in 1972 and 1976 at the ages of 40 and 44. He won the silver medal in the 1974 Christchurch Commonwealth Games marathon at the age of 41. Foster’s time (2 hours, 11 minutes, 19 seconds) was the world’s best for 40-plus athletes until 1990 when New Zealander John Campbell ran 2 hours, 11 minutes, 4 seconds in the Boston Marathon. Foster also won the Honolulu Marathon outright at the age of 43, and in 1982 in Auckland he set a world record for runners over 50 years of age – 2 hours, 20 minutes, 28 seconds, which remains the second-fastest time ever achieved by a 50-plus runner.
A number of New Zealand runners have held age-group world records. Among the most notable were Derek Turnbull (1,500 metres to marathon), Ron Robertson (5,000 and 10,000 metres and steeplechase) and Bernadine (Bernie) Portenski (1,500 metres to marathon). A former marathoner, Tiare Lund, has a similar record in world aquathlon, triathlon and ironman.