New Zealand’s first female Olympic medallist, Yvette Williams (now Corlett) won gold in the long jump with an Olympic-record leap of 6.24 m (20 feet 5¾ inches). Her triumph came 32 years after New Zealand’s first female Olympian, swimmer Violet Walrond, competed in the 100 m and 300 m at the 1920 Antwerp Games.
Thanks to amateur radio operators who were monitoring shortwave broadcasts from Britain, Australia, the United States and Finland, and preparing commentary of Olympic events, New Zealanders were able to stay up through the night and listen to Williams compete in the long jump.
Those watching at the Olympic Stadium in Helsinki or listening back home had an anxious wait. After leading the qualifying round with a jump of 6.16 m, in the final she recorded two no-jumps in a row. With only one more chance to stay in the competition, she cleared 5.90 m on her third jump to make the top six and earn a crucial three extra jumps. Williams’ fourth jump was perfect. At 6.24 m, it was just 1 cm short of the world record held by Francina ‘Fanny’ Blankers-Koen of the Netherlands. Williams had set a new Olympic record and won gold for New Zealand.
Sir Arthur Porritt, a former New Zealand Olympian and 1924 bronze medallist, presented Williams with her gold medal. The New Zealand flag was raised and the Finnish military band played first ‘God Save the Queen’ and then ‘God Defend New Zealand’. New Zealand supporters carried Williams shoulder-high from the stadium with a flag draped behind her.
Back in the Olympic village, Williams received a telegram from her father: ‘Congratulations Chickie. Wonderful effort. Mighty proud of you.’ She reportedly replied that he should wait until Saturday (it was then Wednesday) to celebrate as she still had competing to do. She finished 6th in the shot put and 10th in the discus.
Williams took a month-long holiday in Europe before returning to New Zealand, where she was fêted at public receptions in Auckland, Dunedin and throughout the South Island. It would be 40 years before New Zealand would celebrate another female Olympic gold medallist – windsurfer Barbara Kendall at the 1992 Barcelona Olympic Games.
In 2002 Williams was the only New Zealand representative to attend the 50th anniversary of the Helsinki Olympics. The celebrations involved a re-enactment of the opening ceremony at the Olympic Stadium, which was little changed since 1952. Williams received an ovation from the crowd in honour of her gold medal win.
Image: Yvette Williams in mid-jump (Te Ara)