Dave Norris got his start with the Western Suburbs Athletics Club.
Dave Norris ONZM has been an international athlete, national basketball player, magazine editor, TV commentator, school principal and sports management businessman. He represented New Zealand at five Commonwealth Games and one Olympics. Jonathan Killick spoke to Dave at his home in Mangawhai about an illustrious career that started with a debilitating childhood illness …
I was five when I was diagnosed with osteo-chronditis, a bone and joint disease, which saw me in and out of casts for 18 months. I’m still not sure how they cured it, but I ate eight raw eggs with milk each week, and to this day I can’t stomach eggs without tomato sauce. My entry into athletics came from a series of complete chances. We’d moved from Northland to Auckland and were living near Grey Lynn Park, where there was a top athletics club. One day, freshly out of plaster, I was walking past and heard a man calling for seven and eight year old boys to line up for a race, so I joined. I was as uncoordinated as a newborn foal, but I did alright and the coach asked me to join. I developed a new incurable disease – a love of athletics. In those glorious years the club won more than half of the national titles. When I was 17, Les Mills was instrumental in encouraging me to get serious about training and I became infused with club members Yvette and Roy Williams’ systematic methods.
In 1957, I was part of the NZ team at the Australian athletics championship and placed third in the long jump. I also won my first NZ senior triple jump title and qualified for the 1958 Cardiff Commonwealth Games. At 18, I was the youngest Kiwi male competitor ever and I got a bronze medal. While I was there, I also won the British athletics championship and set a triple jump record. In 1960, Athletics NZ took a big gamble and sent me to the Rome Olympics along with Peter Snell. He and I were the youngest men there in a 14-strong team, mainly so that we could get experience. Peter stunned the world and won gold in the 800 metres. In hindsight, it was too early for me and I didn’t perform that well. In addition to a knee injury, I went missing for three days after being whisked off to hospital after suffering a severe reaction to a food allergy.
I will never forget a dramatic incident that took place while I was there. It was the last round of the triple jump and Russian athlete Vitold Kreyer leapt ahead of an American into third place. I was one of the few that saw the complete picture of what happened next. The American went to shake Kreyer’s hand in congratulation, but the big screen caught Kreyer declining the gesture. Kreyer said he had refused because it had been too soon for congratulations, but it took place during the height of the Cold War and the stadium viewed it as an ungracious snub. Instead of booing, Italians whistled. Before long the whole stadium had joined in a high-pitched cacophony. It went on for 10 minutes as officials tried to figure out what was going on. The athletes then shook hands, and that should have been the end of it. But later, on the podium, the crowd continued to whistle so while two athletes stood there jubilant, Kreyer broke down crying. Newspapers around the world printed the image and one labeled him “Kreyer the crier”.
In the 1962 Perth Commonwealth Games, I nearly achieved gold in the long jump – although I didn’t deserve it. A 6’5” athlete from Ghana, Mike Ahey, through mismanagement of his markers and missteps, trailed behind me for five out of six jumps. He was cursing away and I felt sure he was going to blow it. But on the final jump he leapt to 8.05 metres and won. I took silver. I attended the 1966 Kingston Commonwealth Games in Jamaica during a climate of social unrest in opposition to British colonial rule. We were shocked when one of the NZ road cyclists got beaten up while out training. I took fifth place. Later, at the 1970 Edinburgh Commonwealth, it was so cold I had to wear my winter pyjamas underneath my track pants and was careful not to let them show when I took off my tracksuit to jump. How embarrassing that would have been. Again, I placed fifth. Once I hit 34, I attended my last Commonwealth Games in Christchurch in 1974 and placed sixth. In 1978, I won my last of 28 national titles and decided to retire from competing. I felt there was no point trying to put the toothpaste back in the tube.
I was fortunate to return as a commentator at the 1988 Seoul Olympics, reporting from the stadium for TVNZ. The whole time I was talking, I received instructions though an earpiece. On one occasion, I got a call from crew saying they had lost the audio from the women’s long jump and they asked me to re-enact it while watching the clip. Then it transpired they had lost the ability to transmit the visual to me. So, through my earpiece they relayed what had happened while I visualised it and ad-libbed commentary to a blank screen. They’d say “she’s running and now she’s taking off,” and I would comment “great jump – looks like just over the seven-metre mark”, knowing full well the result.
In 1996, I was the NZ Olympic team manager at the Atlanta Games. Being a manager was tougher than being an athlete, with days lasting from 6am to midnight and requiring a high level of organisation. On a separate occasion, I remember queuing for buses at 5.30pm, standing near the American contingent. Two sprinters were watching the games on a monitor when one suddenly shouted, “that’s my race!”. Their coach had mistaken the 24-hour clock time of 1730 as 7.30pm. They were among the best sprinters in the world and were disqualified. It was a real scandal. Their coach Stan Wright was thereafter known as “wrong time Wright”.
Throughout this time, I also had a career as a teacher. I taught at Avondale College, Waiuku College, Kelston Boys High School, was deputy principal at Rangitoto College and eventually principal of Glenfield College. I also played 31 games for the Tall Blacks national basketball team. My basketball journey started in 1956 when there were only four schools in the Auckland competition and I was dragged onto the team for the final tournament, despite never having played a match. Since then things have changed dramatically. It is the fastest growing game in New Zealand, and the North Harbour Association is among the largest. For a time, I coached the Harbour national league team, and was later chief executive of the association. I recall seeing a team come in to practice on the courts and the players were all much taller than me. Well over six foot. I asked who they were and was told they were the under-16s.
In 1977, I got an offer from Sir Graeme Avery to form a sports management company called NorthSport Academy. In those days, coaches were volunteers and had to do administration, fundraising and clean gear, and so on. We raised funds to take those responsibilities off our best coaches and paid them full time so that they could get on with coaching and increase their scientific knowledge. That was unique in athletics at the time. The 80s was a great time for that sort of thing. All sorts of opportunities came up for me, and I was like a mosquito at a nudist camp, trying them all. Sir Graeme, Graye Shattke and I organised a one-hour decathlon, compressed down from a two-day event. It was incredibly exacting, with 10 events held in an hour and set world best records that were contested in Europe and the USA. It was very exciting and enjoyed annual prime time TV coverage. In the 90s, I worked with Dr Henry Duncan at AUT lecturing for an unofficial Recreation and Sport Management paper. It proved so popular that AUT eventually approved it, and it became its own department and degree. Today it has a large staff and hundreds of students. Later on, a group of us including Sir Graeme and I were involved in forming the AUT Millennium Institute of Sport and Health, which is now an $80 million high performance training centre.
Looking today at the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games, I empathise with the athletes. There is an argument that the games shouldn’t be held during a pandemic but, on the other hand, these athletes have dedicated their lives to competing, and they won’t get another chance. I’ve asked myself if I would go if I were 25 and I believe I would. The empty stadiums will be incredibly weird. I cannot adequately describe 80,000 people in a stadium screaming, and what that that pressure does. It will either crush you, or the adrenalin will push you to leap beyond your perceived limits and to unimagined heights.