1 Dec 2022

Athletics legend Sir Murray Halberg dies

4:54 pm on 1 December 2022
New Zealand middle distance runner, Sir Murray Halberg, during a race.

New Zealand middle distance runner, Sir Murray Halberg, during a race. Photo: Photosport

New Zealand athletics legend Sir Murray Halberg has died aged 89.

Halberg was one of the country's greatest runners at a time that is still regarded as a golden era in New Zealand athletics.

For a decade he excelled as a world-class athlete on the international stage, memorably striking 5000m gold at the 1960 Rome Olympics.

Away from the track he will also be remembered for his inspirational work in transforming the lives of children with a disability through sport as the founder of the Halberg Foundation.

Murray Halberg was born in 1933 at Eketahuna in Wairarapa but spent most of his life in Auckland where he was educated at Avondale College.

His athletics career began after he seriously injured himself playing rugby and the months of rehabilitation left him with a withered left arm. He was 17 and the disability made him a determined athlete and gave him a life-long interest in the needs of crippled children.

His talent was nurtured by Arthur Lydiard, and he was the first great runner to emerge from the Lydiard stable. He came to national attention in 1954 when he won the New Zealand mile championship and later that year ran competitively at the Vancouver Empire (Commonwealth) Games. In that race, he was bit part player in the drama of the Bannister-Landy 4-minute mile.

But by 1958 he had become a great runner. That year he became the first New Zealander to break 4 minutes for the mile, won the gold medal for the 3-mile race at the Cardiff Comonwealth Games, and was named Sportsman of the Year. He set world records for the 2- and 3-mile and mile relay, all in 1961 and won another Commonwealth Games gold medal in 1962.

Halberg set a string of records and won many titles over distances from 8-hundred to 10-thousand metres but his finest moment came when he won the 5000 metres at the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome. It was a golden double for New Zealand runners - his Lydiard stablemate Peter Snell had shortly before won the 800-metres.

He went to the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo but finished down the field in the 10,000 metres. He turned to coaching for a while but was pouring his energy into his work for the Crippled Children Society, now known as CCS. He had set up his Halberg Trust in 1963 and he relaunched the Sportsman of the Year annual dinner and awards so it became the focal point of his Trust's fundraising campaign for the Society. The event became known as the Halberg Awards in 1992, despite his lack of enthusiasm for the name.

Sir John Walker, Sir Murray Halberg and Sir Peter Snell 2009.

Sir John Walker, Sir Murray Halberg and Sir Peter Snell in 2009. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

Halberg always said his "ultimate goal" was for the Halberg Foundation to do itself out of a job.

He said: "Although we have helped thousands of disabled people over the years, we still have a long way to go before disabled people have the same opportunities to participate in sport and recreation - and in society in general."

He was grateful to all the people who had helped enhance the lives of the disabled, he said.

"For more than 50 years I have witnessed first-hand how sport can be a stepping stone to enhance the lives of disabled people. I've seen how sport can provide health benefits, new skills, social networks, confidence and ambition that can be transferred into many other parts of their lives."

Halberg was knighted in 1988 for his services to sport and disabled children. It was a popular award to a champion sportsman and generous human being. He became a member of the New Zealand Sports Hall of Fame in 1990 and his influence continued into the new century - he travelled with the New Zealand teams as a mentor in the 2002 Commonwealth and 2004 Olympic Games. In 2008 he became a Member of the Order of New Zealand.

He is survived by his wife, Lady Phyllis and three children, Greta, Carl and Stefan, and his two grandchildren.

Athletics NZ CE Pete Pfitzinger said: "Sir Murray was a fierce competitor who gave his all on the track and a true gentleman who served others throughout his life. He was a true champion in every respect and a great New Zealander."

NZOC President Liz Dawson said Halberg's achievements on and off the field of play will go down in history.

"No-one ever exemplified the Olympic spirit of triumphing over adversity better than Sir Murray Halberg," Dawson said.