Sport, 1940-1960

Page 4 – Competitors and spectators

Sport as leisure

Sports participation and spectatorship were the only daytime leisure activities to rival home-centred pursuits such as gardening in this period. New Zealand’s hosting of the Empire Games in 1950 encouraged participation in sport and confidence in our ability to compete at international level. So did the successes of the large team sent to the 1956 Melbourne Olympics: one of its two gold medals went to Norman Read, who won the 50-km walk and was voted New Zealand’s Sportsman of the Year.

For men and single women, virtually full employment made playing sport affordable. Ample time was available on Saturdays thanks to the recently introduced 40-hour working week. Radio commentators such as Winston McCarthy developed distinctive styles for describing events to those unwilling to brave the primitive amenities provided at sports grounds. So did journalists like Terry McLean and Dick Brittenden, who joined rugby or cricket teams on board ship for tours that took up to six months. Major galloping and trotting meetings attracted huge crowds. Gambling went underground in public bars following the introduction of legal off-course betting on horse racing at TABs.

Sports clubs

This period was the heyday of the local sports club, in which some men seemed to spend most of their non-working lives. Beginning in the lightest rugby or most junior cricket team, they rose as far as their playing abilities allowed before retiring to prop up the bar (the conditions under which sports clubs were licensed to serve liquor was a vexed political issue), referee, or serve on the committee. Their long-suffering wives added catering for after-match functions to other support services such as washing the team kit.

How to cite this page

'Competitors and spectators', URL:, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 29-May-2023