Sir Murray Halberg ONZ, KNZM, MBE
Olympic Gold medallist in Rome 1960, Sir Murray Halberg ONZ, KNZM, MBE, of Auckland died at 7pm on Wednesday 30 November 2022 aged 89.
As Sir Murray was being driven to the Olympic Stadium in Rome in September 1960 with Peter Snell and their coach Arthur Lydiard, Lydiard said to Murray Halberg, Peter Snell is going to win a gold medal before you today. And that victory exemplified the true character and spirit of Murray Halberg who triumphed over adversity.
He was born in Eketahuna but grew up in Auckland and attended Avondale College, He was a budding cricketer and rugby player. But at the age of 17 he was badly injured in the shoulder during a game of rugby. After months of rehabilitation he was left with a withered left arm and he had to teach himself to do everything from writing to eating with his right hand. He responded to this setback by becoming an extremely determined runner. The 5000m gold medal in Rome, as Olympian number 94, represented hours of training including the Sunday morning 22 mile run around the Waitakere Ranges, running from his coach Arthur Lydiard’s home in Wainwright Avenue in Mt Roskill and out through New Lynn, Glen Eden and Oratia and back through Titirangi.
His talent was nurtured by Lydiard, with his endurance training methods.
“Arthur meant everything to me,” said Halberg. “If I’d never met Arthur I would never have become a top runner. There was some talent there, and I may have got as far as winning a New Zealand title. But that would have been it. Arthur’s advice, encouragement and expertise enabled me to become an Olympic champion.”
He won numerous New Zealand junior titles and in 1953 at the age of 20 won the New Zealand senior cross country title. And on the track won five senior one mile titles, and five three mile titles. He set New Zealand records over 1, 2, 3 and 6 miles as well as over 5000 and 10,000m. In 1961 he set world records over 2 and 3 miles.
He first represented New Zealand at the 1954 Vancouver British Empire and Commonwealth Games, where he finished fifth in the mile.
He went on to the 1956 Melbourne Olympic Games. At Melbourne he reached the final of the 1500m but then ran a poor tactical race slipping back through the field to finish eleventh. Halberg was devastated and he vowed to himself that he would return to the Olympic stage and fulfil what he believed was his destiny to be an Olympic champion.
He first got a taste of gold winning the gold medal over 3 miles at the 1958 Cardiff British Empire and Commonwealth Games before his historic win in Rome where he put 20 metres on the field with his sudden burst holding onto the lead all the way to the tape.
Coach Arthur Lydiard said it was the greatest moment of his coaching career saying at the time “Snell was great so were the others but to take Halberg from his deathbed and see him win an Olympic gold medal now that was something special.”
He went on to win the gold medal over 3 miles at the 1962 Perth British Empire and Commonwealth Games.
He competed at the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games in the 5000m and 10,000m where he finished seventh in the 10,000m.
Halberg was the first New Zealander to run a mile under four minutes which he did in Dublin in 1958. And in 1958 he was voted New Zealand Sportsman of the year.
It was while he was in Perth at the Empire Games he was asked by the president of the Ontario Sportswriters and Sports casters Association if he would be a guest speaker at an annual dinner in Canada which was a fund raiser for crippled children. Halberg attended and was impressed with the concept of using sports people as magnets for the public to pay to attend a dinner with the profits going to help children with disabilities. On his return to New Zealand he relaunched the New Zealand Sportsman of the Year dinner and built it up so that it became the focal point of the annual fund-raising campaign for the Halberg Trust which supports children with disabilities. The Murray Halberg Trust for crippled Children held their first Sportsman of the Year dinner on 4 November 1963 at the Manhattan in Mt Roskill.
It is through his selfless dedication to the welfare of disabled children in New Zealand which has won him the most acclaim.
He was appointed Member of the Order of the British Empire in 1961 for services to athletics. He was the inaugural winner of the New Zealand Olympic Committee’s Lonsdale Cup in 1961. He was knighted in the 1988 New Year Honours for services to sport and crippled children. He was inducted into the New Zealand Sports Hall of Fame based in Dunedin in 1990.
In the 2008 Queen’s Birthday honours he was appointed to New Zealand’s highest honour The Order of New Zealand. And a month later was awarded the Blake Medal for his more than 50 years’ service to athletics, and to children with disabilities.
Following his retirement from running he did some coaching and he travelled with New Zealand’s 2002 Commonwealth Games and 2004 Olympic Games teams and proved an inspiring mentor for the athletes.
Described as having acid rather than blood in his veins, and it is his establishment of the Halberg Awards in raising so much money for disabled athletes to express their sporting talents that provides the true legacy of a remarkable New Zealander in much the same way as did the late Sir Edmund Hillary’s work with the Sherpas following his conquest of Everest.
In his book ‘A Clean Pair of Heels’ he concludes with a little story that sums up his career.
‘Bill Baillie, Bill Rodger and I were running through the rain during training in Brisbane. At a bus shelter we stopped and facetiously asked an old woman if we were on the right road to Sydney. She glowered at us and replied “You’re on the right road to the looney bin.” We left her there in the rain laughing her head off.
She thought we were mad. We knew perfectly well we weren’t. We went on running and I would do it all again.”
The Ryman Retirement Village in Lynfield is named after him.
Athletics New Zealand Correspondent