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Olympics: Antwerp pioneers established legacy for future NZ Olympians

WELLINGTON (Reuters) - When New Zealand Olympic chief Mike Stanley was looking at photographs of the first team to represent the nation at a Games ahead of Friday’s centenary, the one thing that stood out for him was the silver fern badges on their kit.

Cecil Walrond (Violet’s father and chaperone), swimmer Violet Walrond, sprinter George Davidson, (front row) hurdler Harry Wilson and rower Darcy Hadfield pose for a picture en route to the 1920 Antwerp Olympic Games in Antwerp, Belgium, 1920. The New Zealand Olympic Committee/Handout via REUTERS

These days, New Zealand’s Olympians wear pristine custom uniforms with the silver fern that has endured for more than a century as the nation’s sporting symbol artfully positioned over the left breast.

It was very different for the rough and ready pioneers of 1920.

“They are all so very different. Some (of the ferns) are standing up, some are sideways,” the New Zealand Olympic Committee President Stanley (NZOC) told Reuters with a laugh.

“I think it’s delightful that there seemed to be an attitude of, ‘Here we are team. Off we go, here’s your fern, here’s your singlet’ ... and they probably had to sew them on themselves.

“It’s that sort of pioneering, can do attitude that that team epitomised and it still resonates today too.”

Athletes from New Zealand had competed as part of the Australasian team in 1908 and 1912 but the opening ceremony of the Antwerp Olympics was the first time they marched under the New Zealand flag.

The split from fellow British Dominion Australia was sparked by the First World War, sports author and historian Ron Palenski said.

“New Zealand had made an independent name for itself,” he told Reuters. “People were probably thinking, ‘we don’t need Australia any more, we can stand on our own two feet.’

“There was no animosity, I think it was just an assertion of particular national interest.”

LIONS ON MAIN STREET?

With the war and Spanish influenza pandemic ending just a couple of years earlier, the NZOC had six months to select a team and get to Belgium and struggled to raise the necessary funds.

One fundraising idea, suggested by the father of teenage swimmer Violet Walrond, was to borrow some lions from a travelling circus and parade them down the main street in Auckland asking for donations, Palenski said.

The local council denied them permission, however, and it was not until a week before their boat was due to depart that the funds were finally secured.

The team of hurdler Harry Wilson, sprinter George Davidson, rower Darcy Hadfield and swimmer Walrond -- the country’s first female Olympian -- took nine weeks to get to Belgium and arrived two days before the Games opened.

New Zealand takes around 200 athletes to the Olympics these days.

Although small in number, the 1920 team distinguished themselves well in competition.

Hadfield won bronze in the single sculls -- the first of New Zealand’s 120 Olympic medals -- and each of the four made at least one final.

Above all, though, they established a legacy for the hundreds of Olympians that have since followed, Stanley said.

“The fact that they competed in our own colours of black with the iconic silver fern (is their legacy),” Stanley said.

“It just talks to New Zealand’s attitude of being a small nation in a very far flung corner of the world being prepared to take on the rest of the world in sport.

“It has been an incredible century of achievement by New Zealand athletes.”

Editing by Nick Mulvenney and Peter Rutherford

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