Recently awarded the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to athletics in the 2014 New Year’s honours list, Dick Tayler recalls to Steve Landells his memories of one very special race, which celebrates its 40th anniversary tomorrow.
Rarely does a day pass without someone somewhere reminding Dick Tayler of that
As most Kiwi sports fans of a certain vintage will recall that
race was the men’s 10,000m final held on Jan 24, 1974 - the opening day of the Christchurch Commonwealth Games.
It was a final in which Tayler, a South Canterbury potato farmer, inspired by his coach Arthur Lydiard, sparked a rocket-like start to the home challenge by striking gold in front of an adoring home crowd.
Complete with bushy sideburns, few will forget his post-race celebration when he flipped on his back before ecstatically rising to his feet in victory. It was a glorious moment for New Zealand sport.
Now aged 65 the twice married Tayler is still flattered, if not to say a little nonplussed when people remind him of that success.
‘It is amazing to come across people who still say where they were that day whether that it was in the stadium, listening to the wireless or watching it on their brand new Philips K9 TV set,” Tayler explains. “I could understand it if people wanted to talk about it a year on, but 40 years on. I think a lot of it was down to timing. It was the school holidays, it has mid-afternoon on a Friday and the first ever sporting event broadcast on a colour TV in New Zealand, so there was a whole lot of reasons why it made an impact and why people remembered it.”
Yet there was perhaps another factor as to why Dick’s victory is recalled so affectionately. It was largely unexpected and that was chiefly down to the genius of Lydiard, who protectively shielded his athlete from the spotlight.
Tayler was an athlete of some talent. The great Peter Snell had said to Tayler as a youngster ‘one day you’ll make all my records look silly.’
“I never did make them look silly,” recalls Tayler, “but to hear that from Peter as a young Kiwi boy was ultra special.
Yet he had twice disappointed on the big stage. Firstly, at the 1970 Edinburgh Commonwealth Games and two years later at the Munich Olympic Games, when he failed to advance from his heat of the 5000m.
Leading up to the Munich Games he switched coaches to join Lydiard – the man who had guided both Snell and Murray Halberg to Olympic success. Gradually he started to make progress.
Tayler himself cites his victory at 1973 New Zealand Cross Country Championships as a crucial moment in his Commonwealth preparation as he delivered on Lydiard’s unusual instructions.
“It was a little leftfield,” recalls Tayler. “He said to me, ‘when the gun goes I want you to go as fast as you can for as long as you can. You will end in trouble but I believe you have such a good recovery rate you’ll be able to dominate the race.’ “This happened, which was uncanny.”
In the wake of his victory, Lydiard then suggested Tayler shift training bases to move up to Blenheim and upped his weekly training mileage from 100 to near 200 miles a week. The move was to have several advantages. His in-laws ran motels in the area and rather than work full-time, he could work part-time for them allowing him more time to devote to training. By moving up to Marlborough he could continue to be out of the public glare. However, there was also another key reason for the switch.
“He (Lydiard) told me to prepare properly I had to go up to Blenheim which has some very hot north westerly conditions, very similar to the those I would experience in Christchurch in late January-early February,” he adds. “That put the cream of top to my preparations, because I became so used to those conditions.”
Pounding out almost 200 miles a week under Lydiard he arrived into the Athletes’ Village in Christchurch in peak shape. Yet still Lydiard preferred a low key approach. Happy for the English duo – the world record holder Dave Bedford and David Black - plus the Kenyan distance runners to take on the mantle of favouritism.
“I was a mile from being the favourite and that probably suited Lydiard down to the ground,” explains Tayler. “He purposely kept me away from training at the QEII Stadium and I remember doing a 5km time trial at the training track in the lead up to the Games when everyone else was back in the Village having their tea.”
Never one to shy away from the unusual, on the evening before Tayler’s 10,000m final Lydiard then took his athlete away from the Village to the Bush Inn Pub in Riccarton for a drink. The pair shared three jugs of beer. Tayler was in bed by 10pm and slept soundly.
“I lot of people toss up who drank that most that night and I was probably a bit thirstier than him because of all the training I had done,” jokes Tayler. “It was an intriguing approach, but it kept me nice and relaxed in a good frame of mind.”
It was here that Lydiard plotted his charge’s tactical approach persuading the then 25-year-old athlete to stick to his lap times and see how the race unfolds. He also said to me that night, ‘Richard, you are not the best athlete in the field but you are the best prepared.’
“I didn’t take this as a huge injection of adrenaline at the time, but it was something I reflected back on,” he adds. “What Arthur was very good at was building an inward confidence rather than an outward confidence.”
On race day he was woken up at 7am by Lydiard and the pair went for a quiet jog around the Village. The pair talked about a range of topics including that great Rome day in 1960 when both Snell and Halberg struck Olympic gold for New Zealand within 30 minutes.
“I was intrigued to hear different Lydiard philosophies,” he recalls. “One (Halberg) was a favourite, the other (Snell) was an underdog. He spoke a lot about getting in athletes’ heads and not trying to put too much pressure on them. In the past I’d got myself too hyped and too nervous. He made me calm and relaxed.”
After a brunch of honey and toast and three of four cups of tea “because Lydiard was a great tea and honey man” Tayler then ‘mucked around’ the Athletes’ Village before setting off to the QE11 Stadium at 1.15pm for the 3.15pm start.
Even at this stage, Lydiard was keen to keep Tayler under wraps and instead of taking to the warm-up track where the other 10,000m finalists would be he completed his pre-race preparation at the Ascot Golf Course.
“Even then he took me away from everything,” explains Tayler. “He didn’t want me to see the Kenyans cruising by because Kenyans always look good. I didn’t want to be part of that. It was all designed to keep the pressure off me.”
Once the race started the English and Kenyan contingent shot to the front and quickly stepped on a world record pace. Meanwhile, behind Tayler diligently stuck to the pre-race timing plan. At one stage he fell some 50m-60m behind the lead pack but he himself passed halfway in 13:45 smack on world record pace.
Gradually, however, at the front the pace started to drop whole Tayler maintained his. Slowly, lap by lap, as if reeling in a fish, the Kiwi closed in on the leaders. Sensing a possible Kiwi medal the atmosphere inside the stadium started to build.
“That’s when the crowd started chanting,” he explains. “The Mexican wave hadn’t been invented then, but it was like a Mexican wave of noise started following me around. Initially I wasn’t too happy about it. Here I was minding my own business and all of a sudden this crowd were backing me. It was nice, but I also had a job to do and had to concentrate on that.”
Tayler attached himself to the lead group ‘with about seven laps to go’ and was right in amongst it with five laps remaining. Yet this was the point Tayler made a decision which probably contributed to his eventual gold medal.
Rather than blithely following the pre-race plan of robotically sticking to lap times he readjust his strategy to the race situation.
“If I’d carry on with my lap times history might have said I went on to break the world record or I might have been the Kiwi that led the last few laps and got run down?” he explains. “I decided to stay with the bunch until things stirred up over the last few laps.”
Three laps out and Englishman Dave Black put in a 60-second lap and the field splintered. Entering the final 500m it was Black from Tayler – the two locked in a battle for gold. Yet doubts flashed in the mind of the New Zealander.
“There was a fear factor because the noise was so great (in the stadium) I couldn’t hear what was going on behind. Also, I’d never raced Black before and also there was a fear of failure after what had happened in Edinburgh and Munich. Thankfully, I sensed on that final lap I could maybe win this. I was feeling okay. I had a look at the fuel tank and I still had fuel left.”
With 300m to go Tayler made his winning move. He stepped on the gas and pulled significantly clear of Black who failed to respond. As he entered the final 100m the Kiwi took a sneaky look behind and saw he had opened up a gap of some significance.
“I saw that I was clear, but I still wasn’t confident to know I’d won it. It was only when I charged for the line did I know it was mine.”
He breasted the line with two arms raised aloft in triumph. He had clocked a Commonwealth Games record time of 27:46.40 and then leapt in the air and fell to the ground on his back. Many have speculated he did so out of pure fatigue, but Tayler insists this was not the case.
“People thought because it was I was buggered, but it was because I was so excited that I’d won it for my country, Commonwealth Games selectors and my coaches who had supported me all the way. It was sheer excitement.”
He celebrated his success in low-key style. His sister’s husband organised a family meal at a hotel. He later had the chance to walk around the Village on his own “which was nice.” “It wasn’t a big lair up.”
Yet little did he know the impact his success would have on three million Kiwis. The morning afterwards he accompanied Lydiard to take his coach’s wife to the airport where he was mobbed by well-wishers.
“I couldn't believe that people were coming up to me,” he recalls. “I struggled a bit with that, but I guess that is the power of television. I was a bit of a larrikin and I guess I always wanted to be the same.”
Sadly, for Tayler his career was soon to the cut short by arthritis and he was never to scale the peaks of his Christchurch success again. Today he works in the gaming industry – his main passion is rugby where he currently serves as the long-term President of the Canterbury Rugby Supporters Club.
Yet his gold medal glory some 40 years ago has never been forgotten and that has opened up huge opportunities.
“I’m lucky to have been able to rub shoulders with so many people from so many sports,” says Tayler who has three children and four grandchildren. “I’ve had the chance to be part of centennial and anniversaries and I cherish every one I attend because I realise I have opportunities that other people maybe don’t get.
“I’m still in disbelief that people are still interested in my story. I’m rapt that Kiwis took it that way. The way people talk about the race I sometimes wonder whether I wouldn't have minded being in the stand myself.”