With the Olympics underway, it seems a good time to think about sport! The first serious sporting fixture at the University of Otago involved rugby, though it was a very different sort of game back then. In 1871 there were just 81 students enrolled at Otago, but they managed to muster a team for a 22-a-side football game against Otago Boys High School. It extended over several hours and two Saturdays and ended in a draw. George Sale, the young classics professor and an old boy of Rugby School, played alongside the students, and in 1884 he became inaugural president of the Otago University Rugby Football Club. Cricket wasn’t far behind rugby, with its first match also in 1871, against the Citizens Cricket Club. Cricket historian George Griffiths suggested this first match was ‘archetypal’, for it ‘began disgracefully late, two selected players failed to turn up, and University were resoundingly beaten’. George Sale was again one of the team. Enthusiasts formed a University of Otago Cricket Club in 1876, but it only lasted three seasons; a second attempt survived from 1895 to 1900. The university managed to scratch together teams for one-off matches, but it was in the 1930s that it again managed to get together a club which played regularly in the local competition.
Tennis was one of the most popular early sports, for it required few people and could be played by men and women together. In 1884 students petitioned the university council to provide a tennis court and it duly obliged; the students formed a tennis club and within a couple of years had raised funds to lay down a second court. The tennis club, like many, had its ups and downs through the years. In 1890 one of its courts had to make way for the new School of Mines building and this was not the last time tennis courts were to provide an ideal flat site for building expansion; in the 1970s the Archway Lecture Theatres took the place of tennis courts.
The Otago University Bicycle Club, featured in an earlier post, was founded in 1896, and a year later the University Gymnastic Club began meeting weekly for ‘both exercise and amusement’. By 1901 the ‘noble art’ of boxing was an important feature of the club: ‘It is a huge treat to see a couple of junior Meds punching each other vigorously’, noted its correspondent in the Review. The gymnastic club was very short of members though, and may have evolved into the more specialist boxing club, which was up and running by 1910.
Hockey was another favourite with both men and women. ‘The hockeyites are enthusiastic and promise great things’, noted the Review in 1905, when both women’s and men’s clubs got started. Otago women students were early adopters of basketball (known as netball from 1970). This new sport, which some found preferable ‘to the more strenuous game of hockey’ was taking off in Dunedin schools and church organisations. University teams played in local matches in 1915, the year that the Otago Basket Ball Association, New Zealand’s first, was established, and by 1918 there was an established university club. The Golf Club, consisting of ‘some thirty enthusiastic players’, got started in 1920. Later to start than some other sports clubs, but destined for a flourishing future, was the rowing club, founded in 1929. It started out using the facilities of the Otago Rowing Club, but by the late 1930s had acquired its own boats and had dozens of members. In subsequent decades the growing university was able to support an ever-broadening range of sports clubs, from archery and taekwondo to diving and badminton, and of course some students also played for clubs outside the university.
Students didn’t have to join a club to enjoy sports. Many a scratch team was put together for a bit of fun, such as the regular annual footy matches between dental and mining students. Residential colleges promoted sports as well, forming teams and playing against other colleges. Soon after Otago’s second college, Knox, opened in 1909, it began playing tennis, hockey and rugby games against the first college, Selwyn. In 1932 they institutionalised their sporting rivalry with the Cameron Shield, hotly contested in various codes ever since. Arthur Porritt, an early 1920s medical student and Selwyn resident, recalled that ‘statutory work accomplished, we indulged to the maximum extent possible in sport …. “Billy” Fea and Mackereth – two “All Blacks” – were our heroes – and we rejoiced in winning the Inter Varsity Tournament’. Porritt was an outstanding athlete himself, winning a bronze medal in the 100m at the 1924 Olympics in Paris (famously portrayed in the film Chariots of Fire, but with a fictional character representing Porritt). Athletics took off at Otago when the Easter Tournament between the four university colleges commenced in 1902. Soon after that first tournament – hosted and won by Canterbury – Peter Buck (Te Rangi Hiroa) presided at the founding meeting of the Otago University Amateur Athletic Club. The club ran annual ‘inter-faculty’ events, where students of Otago’s various faculties competed for athletic glory; they served as trials for the Otago tournament team. In 1923 the athletic club acquired ‘an offspring’, the University Harrier Club, which held Saturday afternoon distance runs. The harrier club reported in 1930 that its ‘finest individual performance’ came from one J. Lovelock, ‘the best distance runner whom Otago University has yet produced’. Jack Lovelock, a medical student of 1929 and 1930, headed to Oxford on a Rhodes Scholarship in 1931 and became ‘one of the most celebrated of all Olympic champions’, winning gold in the prestigious 1500m race at the 1936 Berlin Olympics.
Otago students have become sporting stars in many codes through the years. Some came to Otago for its physical education school, which for several decades offered the country’s only sports science tertiary qualification. Many of its alumni became household names, such as netballers Adine Wilson and Anna Rowberry, rugby players Anton Oliver, Josh Kronfeld and Jamie Joseph and cyclist Greg Henderson. Farah Palmer first took rugby seriously after arriving in the south; she went on to lead the Black Ferns to three world cup wins and complete a PhD in physical education. But sports stars came from other disciplines as well. In 1998 Otago claimed a national ‘captaincy treble’: Palmer was captain of the Black Ferns; Taine Randell, a 1997 law and commerce graduate, captain of the All Blacks; and Belinda Colling, a 1998 psychology graduate, captain of the Silver Ferns. Completing a degree while representing your country or province in sport was no easy feat and some sports people dropped out or took longer than usual to finish their studies. In 1990, for instance, John Wright, captain of the New Zealand men’s cricket team, graduated with a BSc in biochemistry, completed after a 15-year break from study. In 2012 the university celebrated when two former students, Hamish Bond and Nathan Cohen, won gold for rowing at the London Olympics; both had studied commerce at Otago before sport took over and they switched to distance education via Massey University. The students’ association recognised its star sportsmen and women with ‘blues’ for outstanding achievements. It also provided financial support for various sports clubs and their facilities. One of the biggest OUSA investments was the Aquatic Centre, opened in 2002 as a new home for the rowing club, which had lost its old premises and boats in a 1999 fire. The splendid facilities presumably contributed to Otago’s long run of success in national and international rowing events in subsequent years.
Of course, most students had lesser sporting abilities, and OUSA also developed premises for those who just wanted to keep fit and have fun. Smithells Gym provided room for some indoor activities, but the needs of the physical education school took priority there. OUSA built its Clubs and Societies Building in 1980 to cater for a wide range of activities, and it was soon hosting aerobics classes and weight training. It quickly proved inadequate for the rapidly growing student roll, providing an incentive for the OUSA to take part in a new scheme proposed by the Otago Polytechnic Students Association. The two associations and the university purchased and converted a former stationery factory in Anzac Avenue into the Unipol Recreation Centre, which opened in 1990 and immediately became a hive of physical activity. The university itself developed a recreation services department in 1984, hiring out equipment and organising courses and trips. Recreation services also held the contract to run Unipol. In 2012 Unipol moved to a larger purpose-built space in the new University Plaza building, attracting a jump in student use. Soon afterwards OUSA sold its share of Unipol to the university, unwilling to commit more funds and confident that the university had student needs at heart. Student president Logan Edgar cited the famous example where Unipol had refused a gym booking to the All Blacks ‘when it would have limited the space of students attempting to work out’. OUSA put the proceeds towards a major upgrade of the Clubs and Societies Building (then known as the Recreation Centre), completed in 2014.
Throughout the university’s history, its students and staff have played an important role in local sport, some as participants and administrators and others as spectators. Indeed, cheering on the local team on the terraces of Carisbrook or, more recently, in ‘the zoo’ at Forsyth Barr Stadium, is an iconic part of ‘scarfie’ culture. This no doubt contributed to the university’s 2014 decision to sponsor the local super rugby team. That decision raised many eyebrows and attracted some opposition, notably from the Tertiary Education Union, unhappy with the extent of spending on marketing within the education sector. Fortunately, the university’s sponsorship coincided with a big improvement in the Highlanders’ results, and when they won the championship in 2015 with ‘University of Otago’ emblazoned on their shirts it was a proud moment for their sponsors. The Highlanders have had another good season, even if they didn’t retain champion status; now it’s time to cheer on our Olympic athletes!
An administrative note
Regular readers may have noticed that this blog post is later than usual. From now on I will be putting up new posts every 4 weeks, rather than every 2. That’s simply because I need to devote more time to writing the book this blog project arose from!