Arise Sir John Walker

TORIAL: Knighthood bestowed on true legend


In the mid-1970s middle-distance running star John Walker wasn’t your typical New Zealand sportsman.

There was no false modesty. When it came to a race he knew he would win, he said so. It wasn’t exactly Muhammad Ali-style, nevertheless his statements were confident, even emphatic.

That didn’t sit easy with a public used to the mumblings of All Blacks. It was the very reason why I regarded him so warmly. He backed himself against the world’s best, and he delivered.

Love John Runner', or feel lukewarm towards John Talker’, there was no denying his achievements - 1974 to 1977 were golden years.

A bronze medal in the 800m at the 1974 Christchurch Commonwealth Games was followed by a silver medal in the infamous 1500m - Walker and the winner, Tanzania’s Filbert Bayi, both going under the then world record. The trailing runners also produced the fourth, fifth and seventh fastest performances to that time.
Walker was announced to a wider public watching television in colour for the first time. With his long, flowing, blondish hair and confident manner, he quickly became the glamour boy of the running world.

The following year in Sweden he also became the first man to go under 3 minutes 50 seconds for the mile and in 1976 won the Olympic 1500m gold medal at Montreal.

His European campaigns, with Rod Dixon and Dick Quax, were legendary. He ran and ran and ran, producing extraordinary results - and back here in Hawke’s Bay I ritually listened to early morning radio news to hear of his exploits.

A global superstar before athletics was fully professional, Walker was never anything but an outstanding role model for his sport.

I saw him in the flesh. Where? At the Hastings Highland Games - in the good old days when it attracted the best of the best for a track and field meet.

One morning my father came around the back of the house yelling at me, ``John Walker’s just run past’. I took my dilapidated bike from the shed, raced along Caroline Rd, down Kenilworth Rd and out onto Karamu Rd where I caught a glimpse of the tall figure with the flowing hair as he rounded Waipatu corner opposite Elwood Rd. Catching the Adonis of running with a dodgy pedal was too big an ask.

He could fly, but his feet were always on the ground and his heart was always with athletics and New Zealand.

How else do you explain a fourth place in the World Cross-Country championships to lead this country to its only title at that prestigious event?

How else do you explain him pushing his body on through the `80s - gaining another 1500m silver medal at the 1982 Brisbane Commonwealth Games and becoming the first man to run 100 sub-four minute miles?

They were golden years all right - you only have to look at the photos of kids running victory laps with Walker at events we can now only dream of holding in New Zealand.

In today’s world Walker would have been rich with a capital R.

But in the time since the roar of the crowd faded away he has not complained, or acted as if the world owed him a living.

On the contrary - he has moved on, raised a family, run a business, contributed to local body politics in Manukau City, started two major charities, and when asked, commented fairly and squarely on the sport he loves.

This he has done while battling Parkinson’s disease for the past 15 years.

Today a true legend of New Zealand sport was honoured in the Queen’s Birthday list. If we must have knighthoods, this is one I approve of.

Thank you for the memories, John. Arise Sir John Walker.

I didn’t realise New Zealand still accepted the British Queen’s honours, but if it makes John happy - as I’m sure it should - then this is great. He’s a tremendous guy. I wish him long life and hjope his health holds up.

Athletics great John Walker is New Zealand’s first knight under the new royal warrant that restores knighthoods in the Queen’s Birthday honours after a nine-year absence.

Sir John, who won 1500m gold at the Montreal Olympics, is appointed a Knight Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit (KNZM) in today’s honours which include two new dames – art patron Jenny Gibbs and educationalist Iritana Tawhiwhirangi.

The Government announced in March that titles, dropped by the Labour government in 2000, would be reinstated to the honours system and 85 New Zealanders who have been appointed Principal and Distinguished Companions could opt to become knights or dames by the end of June.

Sir John, previously honoured as Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1992, is honoured for services to sport and the community.

After an athletics career that included being the first person to break 3 minutes 50 seconds for the mile and to run more than 100 sub-four minute miles, he was diagnosed with parkinson’s disease in the early 1990s.

But he has continued to be involved with sport and the community, serving on Manukau City Council since 1998. Last year he established the Find Your Field of Dreams Project in Manukau to help young people participate in sport.


I remember walking into the foyer at the Summer School on the outskirts of Oslo in the mid-80s and hearing Darren Clark and Maree Holland giving shit to Walker. He said something like: “I’m at the top of the game, an Olympic gold medallist and a world record breaker and here are these Aussies, giving me shit. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

Says it all really. What a great bloke.

Walker, Dixon, Quax…ahhh those were the days :stuck_out_tongue:

Tuesday, 02 June 2009 Walker, legendary miler, receives Knighthood

Legendary miler John Walker upon receiving his Knighthood (Getty Images)
1976 Olympic 1500m champion and multiple World Record breaker John Walker received a Knighthood in the New Zealand Queen’s Birthday honours on Monday (01). Sir John was made a Knight Companion for services to sport and the community.

Walker, 57, competed internationally for 19 years, setting three World records: 3:49.4 in the mile, the first athlete under 3:50; 4:51.4 in the 2000m; and 3:37.4 for 1500m indoors. He was Olympic champion, winning gold in the 1500m at the 1976 Montreal Olympic Games; silver medallist in the 1500m and bronze medallist in the 800m at the 1974 Christchurch Commonwealth Games; and silver medallist at 1500m at the 1982 Brisbane Commonwealth Games. Walker’s career was disrupted by injury and he had to miss the 1978 Commonwealth Games while politics meant he could not defend his Olympic 1500m title in Moscow in 1980.

Walker was the first athlete to run 100 sub-four minute miles on 17th February 1985. He won won eight New Zealand 800m titles between 1972 and 1990 and seven New Zealand 1500m titles between 1974 and 1986. He was attempting to become the first 40-year-old to run a sub-four minute mile during the summer of 1992 when injury finally forced a halt to his career.

He received the Lonsdale Cup in 1975 in recognition of the World mile record and again in 1976 in recognition of the Olympic Games gold medal.

Walker was athlete of the year by Track and Field News in the United States in 1975 and was ranked number one in the world for 1500m by Track and Field News in 1974, 1975 and 1976. He was New Zealand Sportsperson of the year in 1975 and 1976, voted New Zealand Sportsperson of the decade 1970-79 and was joint winner with Sir Richard Hadlee of New Zealand as Sportsperson for the 25 years 1963 to 1987. He was a foundation inductee into the New Zealand Sports Hall of Fame in 1990. He received a New Zealand 1990 medal and in 1996 the IOC presented him with the Olympic Bronze Order.

He received the OBE in the 1976 New Year’s honours and the CBE in the 1992 Queen’s Birthday honours.

Walker is a former member of the New Zealand Sports Foundation Board of Governors, chaired the athletes’ commission of the New Zealand Olympic and Commonwealth Games Association, which included redrafting the contract which governs the relationship between the Olympic Committee and team members, and was Chief Barker and President of the Variety Club of New Zealand.

In the course of a long career Walker has provided inspiration to many young New Zealanders and has been an exceptional ambassador for New Zealand particularly while overseas, he has always acted in what he believed to be the best interests of New Zealand sport and has given much time and energy in the pursuit of better sporting opportunities for all New Zealanders.

Last year Walker, a fourth term Manukau City Councillor, founded ‘Find your Field of Dreams Foundation’ a charitable trust aimed at encouraging the young people of Manukau to pursue a more active lifestyle through sport and physical recreation that would lead to a fitter, healthier and more caring community.

Roy Williams writing in the Sunday Star-Times in 1992 after Walker had announced his retirement said that throughout his career Walker always had time for the common touch.

Several days before Walker’s 1500m Olympic victory in 1976 he was standing at a set of traffic lights in downtown Montreal with his teammate Rod Dixon. The two were talking when a blind gentleman heard what was to him an unusual accent.

“Where are you from?” he said. “New Zealand,” they said. “Are you here for the Games?” he enquired. “Yes,” they replied. "In fact, we’re competing. “Maybe you know John Walker,” he said. “That’s me,” Walker replied.

Walker and Dixon then helped the blind gentleman across the road and after further conversation invited him to have dinner with them that night.

Alec McNab of Wanganui received the Queen’s Service Medal for services to sport.

Murray McKinnon for the IAAF