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The start of something extraordinary

The Story of a Champion

The first book about New Zealand’s first Olympic champion has been published on the centenary of his games triumph.

It’s about swimmer Malcolm Champion and is called, appropriately, Champion – New Zealand’s first Olympic winner. It was written by Ron Palenski and published by the New Zealand Sports Hall of Fame.

Champion teamed up with three Australians in the Australasian team to win the 4 x 200 metres freestyle relay at the Olympics in Stockholm in 1912. He also competed the year before in the mile at the Festival of Empire in London, a sort of forerunner to the Commonwealth Games. He withdrew from his only race there, the mile, but won the English three-mile title in the Thames.

Champion was New Zealand’s most successful swimmer until Danyon Loader.

In 39 starts at national championship meetings, he won 32, was second in five, third in one and did not finish one.

His career lasted an extraordinary 14 years, from 1901 until 1914, during which he was banned from competing for at least four years. It has often been written he was banned for life for a breach of the amateurism regulations which applied to swimming at the time. But Palenski writes that there is no evidence of Champion breaching any amateur rule. Even if he had, he could have swum successfully as a professional, as did many Australians at the time, but never did so.

There were two national swimming associations at the time and Palenski says Champion seems to have got caught up in the rivalry between them. Records of their meetings have not survived, but newspaper accounts of the time make it clear that Champion was suspended for defaulting on a subscription payment to the Wellington centre, which was affiliated to the Christchurch-based national association. Champion came under the jurisdiction of the other national association, in Auckland.

He was not suspended for any stated period. He was allowed to swim again in 1907 when the two national associations merged.

The book also contends that Champion was born in Auckland and not in Norfolk Island, as most sources insist. Palenski unearthed a story in the Sydney Referee newspaper in which Champion, in a lengthy interview, says he was born at St Heliers and went to Norfolk Island, where his mother was from, at a young age. Sarah Champion was descended from one of the Bounty mutineers, Matthew Quintal. She married a shipping master and island trader, William Champion, for whom young Malcolm worked.

In the same interview, Champion said he began competitive swimming in Auckland in 1899 because he heard there was a possibility of “a trip to Paris” in 1900. Nothing eventuated because the money could not be raised. Had it happened, it would have been New Zealand’s debut at the Olympic Games.  New Zealanders had to wait another eight years before entering a games and Champion another 12.

Champion – New Zealand’s first Olympic winner, is available from the New Zealand Sports Hall of Fame for $20 including postage and packaging.