50 YEARS ON FROM MUNICH – THE ATHOL EARL STORY
2022 marks the 50th anniversary of Athol Earl’s gold medal in the New Zealand Rowing Eight at the 1972 Munich Olympic Games. Athol (OC 1970) was the second St Andrew’s Old Collegian to gain this distinction, after Peter Mander had earlier won a yachting gold medal at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics.
Born and raised on the family farm in Hawarden in North Canterbury, Athol was introduced to rowing while boarding at St Andrew’s from 1966 – 1969. Fred Strachan, a New Zealand Rowing Selector, was coaching St Andrew’s crews during this period, and helped guide the senior coxed four to win the Canterbury Schools title in 1969. Athol was the stroke of this coxed four crew, and Strachan recognizing his enormous potential encouraged him to continue rowing after leaving school into the 1970 season. Standing 6 foot 5 inches and immensely powerful, Athol rowed for a NZ Colts crew at first before being drafted into the NZ Rowing Eight at the tender age of 18. Training at Kerrs Reach in Christchurch under the renowned coach Rusty Robertson, the Eight embarked on an overseas tour in 1971 culminating in winning the gold medal at the European Championships. This victory won the crew the NZ Sportsman of the Year Award for 1971 and cemented them as one of the favourites for the Olympic Games the following year.
Retaining an unchanged crew for the 1972 season, the Kiwis were amateurs in the sense that they had day jobs with training beginning at 3.30pm each day. The crew also had to do a lot of their own fundraising for overseas travel, holding a series of bingo games and raffles to get their tickets to Munich. Many of their main rivals at the Olympics were professional rowers funded by the state, and the German and Russian crews, in particular, were thought to be using performance enhancing drugs.
A few days out from the Olympics tragedy struck the New Zealand camp. Athol’s father Peter Earl (also a St Andrew’s Old Collegian) died of a heart attack while in Switzerland. Peter had been advised not to travel by doctors but decided to go anyway to support his son at the Olympics. Despite this huge set back, Athol continued training with the rest of the crew, and the funeral was delayed until the rowers returned to New Zealand.
September 2, 1972 was the day of the Olympic Rowing Finals at Feldmoching in Germany with 35,000 people lining the course. New Zealand was among the favourites for the Eights Final, with their main opposition expected to come from East Germany, West Germany, Russia, and the USA. Blasting off the start line in the final the Kiwis led all the way down the 2000 metre course to record an emphatic victory. In an emotional ceremony, IOC President Avery Brundage presented the medals, delighted that the amateur Kiwis had defeated the professional crews. This victory proved two important points on the international stage – you didn’t have to get paid and you didn’t have to cheat (by taking drugs) to win. In the sporting context this was a classic case of “David slaying the Goliaths of the rowing world”.
Fifty years on, Athol at 19 years of age still remains the second youngest New Zealander to win an Olympic Gold Medal. Only his 1972 crew mate, cox Simon Dickie, was younger when he won his first gold medal at the 1968 Olympics in a coxed four crew.
After the Olympics Athol continued to row for another four years winning several national titles as well as a bronze medal at the 1976 Montreal Olympics in the eight oared boat.
Returning to the family farm in Hawarden after Montreal, Athol and wife Sandra raised their children Belinda, Sam, and David. The farm was sold in 1992, and Athol moved to Blackball on the West Coast to farm for a while, before moving back to Rangiora to work in real estate. Athol was also appointed as a New Zealand Rowing Selector from 2000 – 2013, overseeing the tremendous success of New Zealand crews over this period. His son Sam also happens to be married to Georgina Evers – Swindell who has won a couple of Olympic Gold medals herself!
Currently living in Rangiora, Athol is married to his second wife, Lynley, and still works as a sales manager for PGG Wrightson Real Estate. He remains actively involved with the Avon Rowing Club which he says has played a massive role in his life.
As for the remarkable Fred Strachan (Athol’s first rowing coach), he still lives in Dunedin rising 99 years of age and has mentored triple gold medallist Hamish Bond throughout his career. In 80 years of coaching rowing at all levels, Fred rates Athol Earl and Hamish Bond as two of the finest oarsmen to row for New Zealand.
Thank you to Andrew Sidey (OC 1990) for collating this story.
Team Gold Medal Photo (Athol pictured third from left in both photos below)