The Greatest Track Meet That Never Happend

Christchurch International Track Meet, February 26, 2011

On February 22, 2011, the city of Christchurch was hit by an earthquake that punched up like a giant fist through the surface of the earth, directly under the city’s central business district. Many buildings and homes were destroyed or seriously damaged, and nearly 200 people were killed, including a leading running coach and administrator, Brian Taylor. Among the many wrecked facilities was Queen Elizabeth II Stadium, whose fabled track had been scene of the 1974 Commonwealth Games, 1975 New Zealand Games, 1981 World Masters Championships, 2011 Paralympic World Athletics Championships, and other major athletics events. With no track, a severely damaged city infrastructure, and the community in shock, the International Track Meet, scheduled four days later, was cancelled. A successful meet was held in Wellington, raising $20,000 for Christchurch relief. Nick Willis’s 2008 Olympic silver medal was formally presented to him there, instead of at the Christchurch meet as planned.


Nothing will obviate the losses of that disaster, but Christchurch and New Zealand have begun to heal, and sport is making its usual major contribution to that process. In that spirit of healing, we have done some imagining. Part of the frustration of the quake was that the ITM was shaping up so well. What if the quake had not happened and the Track Meet had? What new marks would Christchurch have celebrated making in athletics history that February night in 2011?


 Silver lining for Willis

What a curtain raiser! The 10,000 plus strong crowd poured into QEII to make sure they didn’t miss the first-ever presentation of an Olympic medal on New Zealand soil. They were bubbling with high spirits and had lumps in their throats as Nick Willis received his 2008 Olympic 1500m silver, upgraded (after a disqualification) from the bronze he received in Beijing. With the legendary Sir John Walker making the presentation, it was double jubilation.

Close contests in perfect conditions

The crowd was back on their feet a few moments later, as three 400m hurdlers charged off the last bend in lockstep and battled down the straight. Daylight opened between them only at the final hurdle, as Michael Cochrane surged to win in a meet and New Zealand M20 record 50.62, just ahead of James Mortimer (51.16) and David O’Shea (51.68).


Women beat men

The open high jump ended in a mixed-gender tie, between Liz Lamb (1.81) and Billy Crayford (2.12), level on points. Sarah Cowley was in action again with a third place.


A woman’s victory that was less of a surprise came from New Zealand’s all-conquering superstar Valerie Adams. The world, Olympic and Commonwealth champion received a standing ovation from the crowd, and then dominated the all-comers shot put, climaxing in the final round with the biggest put ever seen in New Zealand, 20.53, an all-comers record, to Dale Stevenson’s 20.28 and Tom Walsh’s 18.17.


Hairsbreadth finishes

Up jumped the crowd again for the hairsbreadth finish of the men’s 400m, with Alex Jordan 46.61 and Andy Moore on 46.96 while Australia’s Alexander Carew took third (47.23, PB). Another rousingly close track finish saw Daniel Balchin edge Julian Oakley in the under-23 1500m (3:51.70/3:51.75).


Truly international

The meet got truly international half-way through the evening, with the sprints and 800s. In the women’s 200m Andrea Koenen had to beat England’s Mel Purkiss (24.05/24.41), and Scotland’s powerful Nick Smith won the men’s 100m in 10.42 against a personal best 10.43 by Carl Van der Speck. Australia was again in arrears, with Dan Martin third. Paul Zongo broke his own New Caledonia national record finishing fifth in 10.68.

In world terms, things got better and better. Jemma Simpson, the 2009 British champion, won the women’s 800m in a swift meet record 2:02.88, beating previous record-holder Angie Smit (2:03.56).  The men’s 800m had runners from Australia, New Caledonia, New Zealand, Samoa and USA, and it was the classy Americans who prevailed. Alan Webb, the US mile record holder and one of the great American names of the last decade, won in 1:46.62, from Tyler Mulder, 1:46.81 and James Gurr 1:46.94. It was a wonderful race that looked cutting-edge world-class (provided you didn’t remember that Peter Snell running on grass in 1962 would have been clear by two seconds).


Kiwis triumph

Commonwealth Games medalists Nikki Hamblin and Nick Willis stirred patriotic spirits with superb victories. Hamblin in the women’s mile did most of the leading, surging impeccably away on the last 300m for a New Zealand Resident record 4:30.75, followed home by Australian Lisa Corrigan in 4:31.18. Willis left it later in the men’s 1500m. Matt Harris set the pace perfectly, and when he pulled off at 600m to go the pack looked vibrant and very classy – Michigan-based Brit Lee Emmanuel took up the front running, followed closely by Will Leer (USA), Brandon Bethke (USA), James Nipperess (Australia), American 800 star Nick Symmonds, and Willis in his usual sheep-dog position at the tail of the line. Just behind were kiwis Hamish Carson and Hayden McLaren.


Predictably and (for the crowd) delectably, it was Willis who swept round the pack as they came off the last bend, sending the stadium delirious with a pulsating finish that made us all think of Snell and Walker. He took the race and the meet record with 3:36.87, a nice performance at the beginning of a world championships year. Leer, popular with the crowd for his long 1960s hair and even longer moustache, was second in 3:37.07, and Symmonds, who had seemed to lose contact along the back straight, found his 800 speed and charged barrel-chested through to third (3:38.59). Emmanuel took fourth in a season’s best 3:38.78, an especially pleasing result to imagine for those of us who saw him fall badly in the real-life race that most of this field actually ran in Wellington on Feb 26th. Everyone else in our fantasy field ran personal bests, our way of showing our hopes for the future of Hayden McLaren (3:39.55) and Hamish Carson (3:39.97).

Rupping it Up

A memorable night ended with an assault on the American 10,000m record by Galen Rupp. If he did it (26:59.60) he would also be way under Dick Tayler’s legendary New Zealand resident and QEII stadium record of 27:46.4 from the 1974 Commonwealth Games. Titus M’bishei of Kenya had been brought in by coach Alberto Salazar as pace-maker, and did an excellent job to well beyond halfway. But in the eighth kilometre the pace was drifting outside the target schedule and Rupp took over. Huge crowd support and a fervent atmosphere under the glowing floodlights lifted him, but six laps solo were just too demanding, and the final time was 27:28.57, well inside Tayler’s mark. M’bishei held on to 29:32.19, and third was New Zealand champion Stephen Lett who had a lonely but impressive race for 29:36.68.

Note: In September, Rupp broke Chris Solinsky’s US 10,000m record with 26:48.00, making him the fastest non-African in history. The planned attempt to run that speed at Christchurch in February was not a fantasy, although our race narrative is.



One final celebratory moment came when the final presentation of the evening, to Rupp for the 10,000m, was made by the prominent Canterbury runner, coach and administrator Brian Taylor.

Stats and “results” by Craig Motley, words by Roger Robinson.