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.
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.
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.
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.
Running was the first sport to create separate club organisations and competitive structures for older participants. The earliest, the Veterans Athletic Club (Veterans AC) in England, was founded in 1931. The American Seniors Golf Association was established in 1935, and the first seniors’ tennis tournament was held in Switzerland in 1947. Masters track races began in the United States in 1966, and American road races began to give age awards in 1971. The first international federation was the German-initiated IGAL (Interessen-Gemeinschaft Älterer Langstreckenläufer), which instituted annual world road running championships in 1968. The Tennis Grand Masters circuit began in 1972.
A group of Canterbury women came together to compete against women from other provinces in the 1974 Veterans Pre-Commonwealth Games meeting at Rawhiti Domain. After that event they asked for a women’s grade in the national masters cross-country championships at Whanganui in 1975. The organisers were unenthusiastic but agreed. When six Canterbury women made the trip up to Whanganui they found that no one else had entered the race. At the prize-giving afterwards the local chairman neglected to mention the women’s race, but had to announce it after remonstrations by the women’s contingent.
In New Zealand the ‘Trojans’, a team of former national hockey team members, played provincial teams and gave coaching demonstrations in the 1950s and 1960s. The Waipawa Tennis Club's veterans’ tournament, held annually since 1955, was the first New Zealand sporting competition specifically for older players. Established by Don and Mary Allen, the Waipawa tournament encouraged the spread of veterans’ tennis throughout the country.
New Zealand’s first club for older sportspeople was the Canterbury Veteran Runners Association, a runners’ club set up in 1962. Founder Clarrie Gordon had been inspired by England’s Veterans AC, and in particular by 83-year-old Joe Deakin, who still ran competitively with the English club. Deakin, a 1908 Olympic medallist, was appointed patron of the Canterbury association.
The first national championship for masters was held on 8 August 1970, when the Canterbury Veteran Runners Association initiated the first New Zealand Veteran Athletes Cross-Country Championship, run over 12 kilometres, at Paekākāriki. A women’s grade was added to the national cross-country championships in 1975 at Whanganui.
Masters road, marathon and track championships quickly followed, and the first national track and field championships were at Christchurch in 1975. However, before that an International Veterans Pre-Commonwealth Games Meeting was held at Rawhiti Domain, Christchurch, in January 1974. World over-40s records were set by Maeve Kyle of Northern Ireland (400 metres) and Jack Foster (10,000 metres). Foster went on to win the silver medal for the marathon at the Christchurch Commonwealth Games. Former Olympic champions Peter Snell and Englishman Chris Brasher also featured in the veterans’ races.
The rules of sports are upheld in Golden Oldies’ competition, but with adjustments to allow for age. In rugby, games are played in three 20-minute spells, with a 10-minute rest period in between. Teams can field as many replacements as they like, and no pushing is allowed in the scrum. There are restrictions on tackling players over 60 years old, who are identified by the colour of their shorts.
In cricket, bowlers’ run-ups are limited to 10 metres. Six bowlers must be used by each team, and festival matches are limited to 40 overs per side.
In 1979 the first international ‘Golden Oldies’ rugby festival was held in Auckland. Tom Johnson, a former Hawke’s Bay captain and coach, was instrumental in setting it up. Thirteen teams from New Zealand took part, along with two teams made up of players from Canada and the US. The only prerequisite for players was that they had to be over 35. The festival was held biennially and grew rapidly. In 1981 it was held at Long Beach, California, with 46 teams from 11 nations. The 1983 festival in Sydney had 118 teams.
The Golden Oldies concept spread to other sports. In 1983 Golden Oldies hockey and (association) football tournaments began, with cricket and netball following in 1984. The first Golden Oldies International Cricket Festival, held in Auckland in 1994, attracted 34 teams from six countries. The main emphasis in Golden Oldies’ tournaments is on the social side of sport rather than competing to win.
American David Pain organised a ground-breaking European tour by American and Canadian masters athletes in 1972. In 1975 the highly successful biennial World Veteran Track and Field Championships began in Toronto. The World Association of Veteran Athletes (WAVA), later the World Masters Athletics, was founded in 1977. In January 1981 the IGAL (Interessen-Gemeinschaft Älterer Langstreckenläufer) road running world championships were held in Palmerston North. The WAVA track and field championships were held a few days later in Christchurch.
The New Zealand sports media finally began to report masters sport seriously, rather than with condescending images of decrepit runners falling over hurdles. The Oceania Veterans Games (track and field), first held in Fiji in 1982, were strongly supported by New Zealand athletes. Other sports followed suit, with the first masters world swimming championships held in 1978.
The Palmerston North harriers’ club successfully organised the 1981 IGAL world road running championships with a group of volunteers on a low budget. On the registration day the competitors’ numbers, ordered from the US, had not arrived. Organisers rushed to buy plastic material, cut it up and write the numbers with felt pens. Despite this hiccup, sunny weather and a large crowd made for a carnival atmosphere and a highly successful event.
The first World Masters Games were in Toronto in 1985. The impact of 8,300 participants on the local economy ensured the games’ survival, despite a financial loss for the organisers. The concept was then sold to Denmark. Since 1994 numbers for the four-yearly gathering have regularly been over 20,000. Winter Masters Games were added in 2010.
In New Zealand, Christchurch initiated a South Island Masters Games in 1988. It was later held in Timaru and, in the 2000s, Nelson. The first New Zealand Masters Games, initiated by Arthur Klap, were held in Whanganui in 1989, with 1,400 participants in 31 sports. From 1992 the games have been annual, alternating between Whanganui and Dunedin. Disposable income, free time and active lifestyles make masters a target market for equipment manufacturers, host cities and the travel industry, capitalising on the growing connection between sport and tourism. When Auckland hosted the World Masters Games in 2017, 28,000 people participated in 28 sports at 48 venues.
In the 1987 World Veterans Championships, four male New Zealand 1,500-metres runners – John Dixon, Dave Sirl, Ian Babe and Derek Turnbull – won gold medals in four age-groups. Between 1989 and the early 1990s, New Zealand male marathoners John Campbell, Roger Robinson and Derek Turnbull were ranked number one in the world in the 40-plus, 50-plus, and 60-plus age-groups respectively. In 2010–11 Bernie Portenski set world 60-plus bests in five distances (3,000 metres to marathon), continuing the pattern she set at 45-plus, 50-plus and 55-plus.
In the 2000s Sport New Zealand (which changed its name from SPARC in 2012) encouraged sport participation among older people. The Ministry of Health had responsibility for health-related schemes, such as Push Play and Green Prescription, which enabled doctors and nurses to prescribe physical exercise. However, masters sport was still mainly self-created, self-administered and self-funded. In the Round Lake Taupō cycle race in 2010, there were 264 riders aged over 65. Many New Zealand masters went on their own initiative to events such as the New York City Marathon.
In the 2000s most sports had masters associations and age-group championships. Teams and individuals travelled to overseas events, such as the Pacific Rim and International Masters Hockey tournaments, the FINA World Masters Swimming Championships and International Triathlon Union world championships. These generally appealed to more serious competitors, while the Masters Games and Golden Oldies’ festivals were more social.
Actively ageing: a resource for masters and veterans sport. Wellington: Hillary Commission, 1995.
Boyle, Vince. The fastest old man in the world: the Derek Turnbull story. Winton: Pat Turnbull, 2006.
Grayburn, Merle, and Arthur Grayburn, eds. A history of New Zealand veteran athletics, 1962–1999. Christchurch: New Zealand Association of Veteran Athletics, 1999.
Palenski, Ron. The games. Auckland: Moa, Dominion Breweries, 1983.
Robinson, Jim. Bill Pratney: never say die. Wellington: Kennett Brothers, 2007.