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02 Sep 1960
Rome 1960

Halberg takes rivals by surprise in stunning 5,000m win

Rarely has New Zealand had such a magnificent day on the Olympic stage. Having watched Peter Snell snatch a memorable victory in the men’s 800m,the Rome crowd then settled back to watch the 5,000m, aware that there was another talented Kiwi with a strong chance of glory.

Murray Halberg had a remarkable back-story. He had been an enthusiastic childhood rugby player whose love for the sport carried into his teenage years. Then his life changed in an instant when a crash tackle left him with a catalogue of injuries to his left shoulder and arm.

Halberg spent two months in hospital and emerged with a withered arm. He had to re-learn the basics, such as eating a meal, putting on clothes and even how to walk and run. He was banned from playing contact sports – rugby, of course, was now impossible – but during his physiotherapy programme he discovered a new passion for running, and his talent was clear.

A year after taking up the sport, he was being coached by the great Athur Lydiard, the man who also coached Peter Snell. Three years later, Halberg was a national champion. He became the first New Zealander to break the four-minute mile and, in 1956, he came 11th in the 1,500m at the Melbourne Olympics.

In Rome, though, he decided to go further, entering both the 5,000m and 10,000m. And he took to the starting line, armed with a curious new tactic.

Lydiard told Halberg to sprint clear of the pack much earlier than any of his rivals would expect: not on the back straight, not even on the last lap, but with 1,200m still to go. Halberg did exactly that, baffling his rivals and opening up a 25m lead. His penultimate 400m was also quick but, by the time the bell rang to signify the start of the final lap, he was almost exhausted. As Halberg willed his way to the line, the East German Hans Grodotzki was closing fast, with the gap narrowing all the time.

But Halberg hung on to win by less than ten metres, falling across the line to land in a shattered heap. Snell, the new 1,500m champion, joined the celebrations.
Halberg competed in the 1964 Games but then retired, and spent much of his life working to help children with disabilities.

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