Above: Ashley Taylor at the 1990 Commonwealth Games in Auckland.
Earlier this year Ashley Taylor won a Lifetime Achievement Award at the prestigious Halberg Awards. Steve Landells chats to the Waikato-based athletic stalwart about his near 70-year association with the sport of athletics.
Rationing was still a daily part of everyday life for New Zealanders and the Second World War had only come to its conclusion two years earlier when Ashley Taylor first experienced the sport of athletics.
It would have been hard to comprehend back then - after being encouraged by a friend of his parent’s to go on a cross country “pack run” with the local Christian Youth Movement Harrier Club - quite the impact his future actions would have on the sport.
Yet, remarkably, almost 70 years later the man from Hamilton is still involved in the sport as an executive member and financial controller of the Waikato/Bay of Plenty Centre and earlier this year his immeasurable contribution to athletics was recognised as a winner of the Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2016 Halberg Awards.
“It was absolutely astounding, I had never even thought about it,” says Taylor on winning the award. “I had attended the Halbergs back in the late 90s and early 2000s and I had watched them on TV and I had every intention to watch them again, only to be invited to attend along with my wife, Jocelyn. To be alongside all those sporting greats was a marvellous thing to participate in.”
Ashley may have started out as an endurance runner, but he quickly discovered his calling was as a sprint hurdler. He impressed after trialling for his school in the 120yrd hurdles and found the event “very much easier than a four-mile cross country.”
Between 1949-1951 he secured a hat-trick of junior national titles and senior success was to follow in his speciality as he claimed gold at the 1953 and 1954 New Zealand Track & Field Championships.
He admits back then his training was basic with athletics chiefly based around competitive opportunities on a Saturday.
“I was an active person and athletics just happened to be one of my activities,” he explains. “I had some natural ability and this gave me an opportunity.”
Often competing alongside his identical twin brother, Douglas, who would later win the 1956 national 120yrd hurdles crown, he laughs at the memory of one inter-club evening meeting at the Putaruru AC when the two twins managed to hoodwink the officials.
“The stadium was dimly lit with a couple of lights on the main stand,” he explains. “We were due to race the 440yds when the idea occurred to us for me to run the first 200m and Doug to run the last 220yds and no-one apart from the other Hamilton runners will know.”
The plan was executed brilliantly as Doug won the race “handsomely” although as Ashley says the pair admitted their ruse to officials after the race.
Yet as he admits, these were different times and the thought of competing and being involved in the sport internationally was in its infancy back then.
“No-one thought seriously of the possibility of being good enough to represent New Zealand,” says Ashley, who attended the track and field programme at the Games. “I remember the1950 Empire Games, as it was called back then, in Auckland changed things substantially.”
Running alongside his track career, Ashley first dipped his toe in officialdom when asked to help out in the high jump while attending the Waikato Secondary Schools’ Championships. It was an experience the then teenager enjoyed and so sparked a long-time affiliation with his area of the sport which was to ultimately take him all around the globe.
He was to make his international debut as control room chief at the 1974 Commonwealth Games in Christchurch. Post the Games in an effort to improve the quality of future officials in New Zealand he proposed a national officials’ scheme be implemented through the New Zealand Athletics Association. On the back of this he became chairman of the national officials’ technical committee and later an International Technical Official.
He went on to work as an ITO at the 1989 IAAF World Cup in Barcelona, the 1998 and 2002 Commonwealth Games in Kuala Lumpur and Manchester and 1996 and 1998 IAAF World Junior Championships in Sydney and Annecy, respectively.
Such roles were among some of the highlights of his life in athletics, but also among the most challenging.
“At the Barcelona World Cup, I was a New Zealander who only spoke English but most of the officials only spoke Spanish or another language,” he explains. “Trying to be an ITO without speaking the language of the country is very difficult. I remember in Barcelona the first event was the 400m hurdles and I had some great difficulty even finding where the athletes were until I found out they were warming up underneath the stand. Other countries presented other difficulties, including Kuala Lumpur in which it was culturally difficult for anyone to say no.”
Also working as a referee at the 1988 World Cross Country Championships and the 1990 Commonwealth Games in Auckland, his connection with the world of officialdom has been long and extensive, so what qualities does a good high-ranking official require?
“You need to know the rules, obviously, but you also have to have an ability to get on with people and if you have a problem to talk with people and not be officious,” he explains.
At a club level he is a life member of Hamilton Athletic Club and he has served as treasurer, secretary, president, and chairman at the Waikato Centre. As a fully qualified chartered accountant he currently still serves the centre as an executive member and financial controller even though he jokes “I’ve been trying to find another person to take the position for the past ten years.”
He was also President of the New Zealand Athletic Association in 1973-74 yet his absolute highlight of his time in athletics came when he was invited to attend the Sydney 2000 Olympics.
“When Cathy Freeman won the 400m that was one of the greatest nights in athletics,” he says of the evening session which has been described as Magic Monday. “That night was just tremendous - a colossal night of competition.”
Yet when Ashley reflects on his life and times in athletics, his greatest pride is reserved for the part he has played in helping organise and run the sport in his part of New Zealand.
“I’m really pleased that athletics is still alive and well in the Waikato,” he says. “Sure we are facing the same problems as many other organisations such as shortage of volunteers etc. But I think we do a good job when we run any meetings here such as the Porritt Classic or the New Zealand Championships and I feel I have played some small part in ensuring that things have gone according to plan.”