With arms like an albatross, Olympian Stan Lay was born to fling a javelin.
"He was short with this terrific arm span that made him a natural for throwing," says son Peter Lay, a retired doctor.
The average span of a man's outstretched arms is equal to his height.
But Stan was no ordinary man. He was 1.75-metres tall (5 feet 9), while his arms, from finger tip to finger tip, measured 1.93 metres (6 foot 4).
Along with his long limbs came an uncanny sporting ability. He played tennis, cricket, soccer and rugby, while at athletics meets he would compete in hurdles, running events, long jump, high jump and javelin.
But he was a specialist thrower, a talent that earned him an Empire Games gold medal, Olympic selection and an unclaimed world record.
Stan's story begins in New Plymouth on July 27, 1906. That's the day he was born to English immigrants Minnie Rebecca (nee Coulam) and Arthur Harry Lay. There were five children in the Lay family - Mona, Stan, Tom, Gladys and Malcolm.
They are all gone now, including Stanley Arthur, who died on May 12, 2003. His passing was marked with a torrent of obituaries from the national media.
Sport in backyard park
While his life began in New Plymouth, his fame - and javelin throwing - started in Hawera.
After a short spell doing odd jobs in New Plymouth, Stan's father landed a plum job in South Taranaki.
From 1910 to 1930, Arthur was curator of King Edward Park in Hawera and the family lived on the spot.
"My first sport contacts were all at King Edward Park," says Stan, in an oral history recording from 1993. "All sporting things were held in or near the park… All very close, so of course we got into sport because it was in our backyard."
The sports-mad youngster was a handy rugby first-five-eighth, but it was cricket that launched his throwing career.
Hurling cricket balls
"He could toss a cricket ball across the field, whereas most of us could only get half way," says son Peter.
Peter says his dad could also throw with run-'em-out accuracy - as Wellington cricketer C.S. Dempster found out in 1926.
The capital batsman whacked a ball towards the boundary and was ambling for a third run when Stan swooped. The Taranaki all-rounder scooped up the ball and fired it home. Dempster was nowhere near his crease when the wickets exploded as if hit by a grenade.
Peter says some wicketkeepers, while happy to have such a crack-shot in the field, didn't enjoy the sting of catching a Stan-slammed ball.
Hunt for talent
The force brought him to the notice of Hawera man Len Hunt, captain of the town's amateur athletic club.
"He got me and said 'I think you would be good at javelin-throwing Stan'. I said 'Well, where do we try it out?'"
On a Sunday morning at the A&P Showground, Stan had his first try. "I was 17 then, when I started javelin throwing. It wasn't long before I started to progress."
He became the best in Hawera, then the Taranaki champion, then took the West Coast (of the North Island) title. "I competed in the New Zealand Champs in Wanganui in 1925, just as a local boy."
Stan says his rivals were big men, mostly policemen, who also threw the shotput, hammer and discus. "There were no real specialist javelin throwers."
That first year at the nationals, Stan was fourth. "I threw 140-something feet (42-something metres) and the winners were about 155 feet (47.24 metres)."
Out to beat big men
But Stan began to practise, perfecting his technique until he could make the javelin soar.
The following season, the Hawera signwriter finally made his mark at the New Zealand championships in Otago.
"…I had improved quite a bit and I finished down in Dunedin winning quite convincingly with 182 feet (55.47 metres) and the other throwers were all around the 150-60 (45-48-metre mark)…I was on the up then…"
In 1926, Stan made the New Zealand team and had his first overseas trip. "That was on the boat from Wellington - three-and-a-half days getting to Sydney," he says. "Then from Sydney up to Brisbane on the train - quite a long journey."
At the Australasian championships, Stan won the javelin title, a feat he repeated the next year in Wellington. At that Boxing Day meet, he became the first Kiwi to throw the javelin more than 60 metres.
Wind out of his sails
His throw of 218 feet 2.75 inches (66.51 metres) was a little more than world mark, but it didn't get him into the record books. "In those days if you were throwing with a following wind, they wouldn't grant you a record, because it was wind-assisted, which was commonsense in a way," he says.
In 1928, he was named in the New Zealand team to compete in the Olympic Games at Amsterdam.
To get there, the Kiwis had to spend four weeks on a ship. First stop was Great Britain. "We went fairly early to England so the runners could get the practice in after a long sea voyage, because you lose form…"
Stan trained at sea by throwing potatoes off the deck into the ocean.
In England, he competed in a London meet at Stamford Bridge. He only managed a throw of 200 feet 1.5 inches (61 metres), but his natural talent caught the eye of famed athletic authority Captain F.A.M. Webster.
'Palm it up'
During the week leading up to the British championships, Webster coached the Taranaki sportsman in his throwing technique. He told the Kiwi that a javelin was meant to be thrown like a dart, with the thrower required to ‘palm it up’ during the final thrust.
Stan tried the new style while Webster snapped photos, which the men later studied.
On Saturday July 7, 1928, the New Zealander again stepped out at Stamford Bridge dressed all in black, a silver fern on his singlet.
The javelin arena was marked out and competitors were silently urged on by two small flags - the Union Jack marking the British record at 212 feet (64.61 metres), and a dark blue one indicating the world record at 218 feet (66.44 metres).
With his second throw, Stan's javelin passed the Union Jack.
But it was his sixth and final throw that caused the London crowd to gasp.
A greenstone tiki
In his book, Lap of Honour, sportswriter Norman Harris describes what happened:
As Lay walked easily back to his mark he could be seen to place his hand over his heart. His heart? No, what he felt for was the little smooth object sewn at the back of his silver fern, a greenstone tiki presented by the Maori people of Hawera. It was there."
With the concentration of a fighter pilot, Stan shot the javelin into the sky. The spear flew, like an arrow from a warrior's bow, tracing an invisible arc over the sports ground.
"The javelin falling now," Harris writes, "but passing over the Union Jack, then over the marker for Lay's second throw, then dipping down for the dark blue flag. A loud shout from each of the 300 people as the javelin head struck, stuck, and stood quivering four feet past (1.21 metres) the dark blue flag."
Headlines but no record
Stan's throw was 222 feet 9 inches (67.89 metres). "I won the javelin…with the best throw I ever did," he says on the tape. "Big headlines because I had unofficially broken the world record at that time."
But again, Stan's throw never made the world record book. The reason this time wasn't wind, but a Finn.
The previous October, Eino Pentilla had thrown more than 229 feet (69.79 metres) and his distance was ratified by the time the English officials put Stan's distance forward.
However, the Hawera man's big throw was a British record. It stood for another 29 years, finally being bettered in 1957.
Short of mark at Olympics
Stan didn't continue his top form at the Amsterdam Olympics. "Everyone had three throws and then they picked the best six out of all the 35 throwers and I was seventh at that stage, so I didn't get any more throws," he says.
"It was only after the Games were over that they realised that was the wrong thing to have done and later on, for the next Games, they had a qualifying distance."
On top of the disappointment, Stan had made great financial sacrifices to attend the Olympics. "During that trip overseas I was away for five and a half months with no pay coming in anywhere," he says.
"It was still a good experience; a great holiday in a way."
Going for gold
The lack of money didn't put Stan off travelling abroad to represent his country.
In 1930, he was chosen for the inaugural British Empire Games, to be held in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada.
Once again the Kiwis travelled by ship, this time with the Australian team. "We were cobbery with the Aussies right through," he says. "It was nice that way and training on the deck as best we could and then on to Vancouver. (We) stopped one night and (went) through the Rocky Mountains on the Canadian-Pacific Railway, which was a lovely experience…"
In Hamilton, Stan was on form.
His throw of 207 feet 1.5 inches (63.13 metres) won him the gold medal. It was another 24 years before that Empire/Commonwealth Games mark was bettered.
Marriage and moving
Back home in Hawera, he made other improvements, this time to his life.
On 12 August 1931, he married Ngaio Kirwin.
The following year, the newlyweds had their first child. "I was born two days before they were married," says Peter, a twinkle in his eye. "In 1932."
Because of his new family, Stan made himself unavailable for national selection. But when the Empire Games were planned for just across the ditch in 1938, he reckoned he could spare the time.
By then, Stan and his family had moved to Stratford, a small town in central Taranaki crisscrossed by streets with Shakespearean names. The Lays lived on Fenton Street (from Merry Wives of Windsor).
The move to Stratford was a matter of loyalty to Stan Reece.
After leaving school at the age of 14, Stan Lay began his sign-writing apprenticeship with the elder man. Once of his first jobs was to paint car number-plates, which were all hand-done in those days.
After ten years, Stan the younger wanted his own business, so moved towns.
"I didn't want to start work in opposition to my old boss - I wouldn't do that."
Secrets of success
Peter remembers his dad training at Victoria Park in Stratford with the Radich brothers, Ned and Joe. His coach on New Zealand soil was a man called Karl Dahl.
"The javelins in his day were just solid chunks of wood and he used to practise with bamboo," Peter says,
Stan made certain he didn't over-do it on training days. "The secret of javelin throwing is not to do too much throwing in training," he told the Weekly News in 1967. "I believe in storing up energy in the arm so that it is there for an explosive effort when required for important competition."
Fitness was gained on the go. "I don't ever remember seeing him exercise as such. Just riding his bike kept him fit," Peter says.
Stan's children, Peter, Wendy, John and Greg, have everlasting images of seeing their dad head off to work.
Up the ladder
"Every morning he would hop on his bike with a wooden box and at times he'd have a ladder on his shoulder," Peter says.
Stan's daughter-in-law Margaret Lay continues the tale about the man they all called ‘Pop’.
"He told us the story of how he biked from Stratford to Inglewood with a ladder on his shoulder. Pop always had a bike - he didn't have a motorcar until 1954. After that, when he did get a car, it had to be able to have a ladder on it."
So, the working-fit and far-throwing father was chosen for the 1938 Empire Games in Sydney. Again, the New Zealand team travelled by boat across the Tasman.
Hi ho silver…
This time, the gold was won by Canadian Jim Courtright and Stan had to settle for the silver. But his throw of 204 feet 1.25 inches (62.21 metres) was good enough to beat the Australian wonder jumper and thrower, Jack Metcalfe, who took bronze.
From 1939-45, the world was at war, forcing the cancellation of international sports meets, including the Olympics and Empire Games.
In the latter parts of World War II, Stan was on Home Service for two-and-a-half years.
"I was conscripted. I remember it was the saddest day of my whole life… going from New Plymouth down to Trentham Camp, leaving my wife and three kids at home," Stan says.
Appropriately, the Taranaki thrower was a physical training instructor at Wellington and then Blenheim. He was finally transferred to New Plymouth, where he moved his family in 1940.
Taking the oath
After the war finished, Stan returned to national competition, winning the New Zealand javelin titles in 1945 and 1946. In 1948, he was beaten by Claude Clegg in Dunedin - Stan's only ever defeat by a Kiwi at the nationals.
Stan got the title back in 1950 and was named in the New Zealand team for his third Empire Games, this time held at Eden Park in Auckland. "I was well down on performance then. I was then 43 years old, you know, so I was getting a real oldie," Stan says.
"That year I only got sixth in the distance, but I had the honour of taking the oath on behalf of all the athletes. Part of the opening ceremony is that one of the prominent athletes of the local country takes the oath of amateurism," he says on tape.
"This would have to be the highlight of my career. It was an honour representing all the athletes in proclaiming we would compete for our countries and the glory of the sport," Stan told the Taranaki Herald in 1988.
His family believe that it was fitting honour for Stan to take the oath.
"He was the ultimate amateur," says Margaret.
Peter says his dad could not understand why an athlete would take performance-enhancing drugs or accept money to compete. "It was beyond his ken."
After the Auckland-based Games, Stan retired from competition. "I started in 1925 at the New Zealand Champs and finished up in 1950… I had 25 years in the top stuff."
First published on 13 August 2004
Dheensaw, Cleve, The Commonwealth Games: The first 60 years, 1930-1990, (1994), Hodder & Stoughton: Auckland
Brasch, Nicolas, History of the Commonwealth Games, (2002), Port Melbourne: Heinemann
Phillips, Bob, The Commonwealth Games: The history of all the sports, (2002), Manchester: Parrs Wood
Harris, Norman, Champion of Nothing, (1965), Wellington: Reed
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PLACES TO VISIT
Pukekura Park, New Plymouth, to see Stan Lay Drive, which runs from the main gates to the Bellringer Pavilion
King Edward Park, Hawera, to see the Stan Lay Entrance
Yarrow Stadium, Maratahu Street, New Plymouth, to see the brick donation wall