Sunday, November 22, 2015

Norman Harris, one of New Zealand's great sportswriters

Sad to learn today of the death of New Zealand-born athletics writer Norman Harris.

Harris, 75, recorded the heady days of the Peter Snell-Murray Halberg era of New Zealand athletics' golden years in a level of sportswriting that has seldom been matched.

He emigrated to Britain in the late-1960s and worked for The Sunday Times.

During his time in New Zealand he contributed a significant collection of books on athletics.

Two of his earliest efforts were: Lap of Honour (published 1963), recording some of the less well known feats of athletics involving New Zealanders, and The Legend of Lovelock (1964), the first published biography of New Zealand's first Olympic Games athletics gold medalist, Jack Lovelock

It was in Lap of Honour that athletes like miler Randolph Rose from the 1920s, Bill Savidan, the winner of a thrilling six miles at the first Empire Games in 1930, and the three-mile/six-mile double winner at the third Empire Games in Sydney, Cecil Matthews, were brought to life for a new generation of sports fans who may never otherwise have known of the feats of these athletes.

But the list didn't stop there: Stan Lay's javelin throwing, Doreen Lumley's sprinting and Doug Harris' half-mile running were described.

And the Olympic Games feats of Lovelock, long jumper extraordinaire Yvette Williams and road walker Norman Read are also feature along with the products of the Lydiard school of middle and distance running that Harris knew so intimately: Halberg, Snell, Ray Puckett and Barry Magee.

The Legend of Lovelock made use of Lovelock's extensive diaries and scrapbooks at Timaru Boys' High School and added to the rich literature surrounding New Zealand's athletics champions.

Along the way he found time to produce some superb booklets which outlined more achievements of other Empire and Olympic Games competitors. These were the Silver Fern series: Silver Fern in Perth (1962), Silver Fern in Tokyo (1964), Silver Fern in Europe (1965) and Silver Fern in Kingston (1966). A record of the 1963 season was described as a New Zealand Athletics Almanack but it was really Silver Fern in 1963 in literary drag.

Of these publications it is not only track and field that is described but cycling, weight-lifting, fencing, rowing at al.

In his Kingston British Empire and Commonwealth Games effort, his description of Peter Welsh's brilliant win in the 3000m steeplechase still stacks up. What a shame film no longer seems to be available of this race. It was one of the classics when a medical student from Otago University took on the guns of the distance and blew them apart in the greatest race of his career.
Harris also described the success of the forgotten miler, the man who gets left off all the lists of New Zealanders to have succeeded in middle-distance events, Ian Studd, the bronze medalist in the mile in Jamaica.

His Silver Fern in Europe is notable for the way in which he recorded the decline of Snell who suffered a series of defeats that eventually led to his retirement. But there was also a superb description of a race involving the man he would eventually make the subject of a full book, Neville Scott, the alcoholic three-mile runner who never achieved the sort of fame that could have been his.

Harris also combined with legendary Australian distance runner Ron Clarke to write The Lonely Breed which took the Lap of Honour approach and applied it to world athletics. His description of the Modesto clash between Snell and American upstart Jim Beatty in 1963 is another fine example of Harris' abilities.

But athletics was not his only forte.

He wrote books about soccer's Charlton Brothers, Bobby and Jack, and also about New Zealanders who had made it overseas in The Fly Away People. He also wrote cricket and a small paperback, Cricket's Greatest Matches was one effort, and a description of the Johannesburg Test match involving the famous Boxing Day/Tangiwai train disaster story of Bob Blair was another recent book.

He latterly returned to his New Zealand origins to write Beyond Cook's Gardens, the scene of Peter Snell's first four-minute mile on New Zealand soil, which also happened to break Herb Elliott's world record of 3min54.5s.

And amongst it all was a tale of his own efforts to make it, firstly as a runner, only to be cut down by an Achilles tendon snap, and then his bid to make it is a cyclist, in his Champion of Nothing.

There is no doubt that Norman Harris was the greatest single influence in my becoming so involved in sports history, and sports writing. We did meet, a few summers back, courtesy of Dr Graeme Woodfield, the writer of Jack Lovelock, Athlete and Doctor. It was nice to be able to thank him for the role he played in helping me choose an immensely satisfying career.

May future generations of young sports fans be similarly fortunate in finding such positive direction in pursuit of their interests.

Vale Norman Harris.

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