As Maddie Davidson becomes our first female Olympic trampolinist, Dido Götz recalls competing in NZ’s first gymnastics team at an Olympics – also in Tokyo, but 57 years earlier
Dido Götz puts on the elegant felt hat and black blazer with the silver fern, and hangs the well-worn travelling bag over her arm – all souvenirs from competing as a gymnast the last time the Olympic Games were in Tokyo.
She also wears a wide smile – and reveals that even now, at 75, she can still do the splits.
She’s kept these treasures for 57 years, when Götz – then Theodora Hill – was a wide-eyed 18-year-old, and the first of three gymnasts to represent New Zealand at an Olympic Games.
When you ask her what it was like to compete at the 1964 Games, up against some of the greatest gymnasts the world has seen, Götz whispers behind her hand: “Terrifying”.
“It’s the best way to describe it,” she says.
She can relate to how Maddie Davidson, New Zealand’s first female trampolinist at an Olympics, will be feeling before she goes into competition today.
As these latest Games in Tokyo finally got underway, Götz was at the national gymnastics championships in Auckland with her husband, Martin.
They’re both legends of New Zealand gymnastics, having coached the sport for decades. Dido, as she’s best known, has been involved in every aspect of the sport for over six decades, and is still a gymnastics judge. But at this meet, ‘Team Götz’ were simply avid spectators.
Götz had hoped to be in Tokyo for these Olympics – to reunite with other competitors from ‘64. But of course, Covid changed everyone’s plans. So she’s been watching whatever gymnastics she can at home on free-to-air TV; seeing how so much has changed from her sole Olympic experience.
“They do much bigger tricks than we did in our day,” she says. “But that’s a result of a massive improvement in the equipment. Today they have padded sprung floors, sprung beams and sprung bars.
“The uneven bars were just wood that would splinter and break. The beam was a piece of laminated wood with sharp edges and metal legs.”
From her old red bag, Götz pulls a folder filled with her Olympic memorabilia. There’s a black and white photo of the decorated foyer of the Auckland Savings Bank’s head office in Queen Street, celebrating their young Olympian Götz, who worked there as a shorthand typist.
In another image, the scoreboard in the Tokyo Stadium bears the creed of the Modern Olympics, from their founder, Pierre de Coubertin. Götz reads aloud: “The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win, but to take part. Just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph, but the struggle.”
There’s a picture of Götz with her two New Zealand gymnast team-mates, Pauline Gardiner and Jean Spencer, boarding their plane in Auckland. All three young women lived in Auckland and trained together in the lead-up to the Olympics.
It wasn’t the first time Götz had represented New Zealand overseas. As a 16-year-old, she competed at the 1962 world championships in Prague. But as the first Kiwi gymnasts at an Olympics, they knew little of what to expect from competing on sport’s greatest stage.
Growing up in the Auckland suburb of Mt Roskill, Götz never thought about the Olympics. “I had a pretty conventional upbringing, my parents weren’t into much sport,” she says.
“For me personally, the Olympics were never a dream. It was just something that happened along.”
She’d fallen for gymnasts, though, when she was a primary schoolkid at May Rd School. Götz watched as one of the teachers taught his class to do “fantastic things in the playground – pyramids, forward rolls, handstands and cartwheels,” she remembers. “I said ‘I want to be in that class’.
“Next year, he had a club where you could choose your sport – I was the first one to put my hand up for gymnastics.”
At intermediate school, she pestered her mother to allow her travel into the city with two friends to join gymnastics at the YWCA. It was there Götz was introduced to Emmy Bellwood, an Estonian gymnastics champion.
During World War Two, when Soviet troops invaded Estonia, Bellwood was granted asylum in Sweden, where she became a physical education specialist. She then met New Zealander Jim Bellwood, a prisoner of war, who’d also studied physical education.
They married and settled in Dunedin, where they would both help to train track and field athlete Yvette Williams. The year before the 1952 Helsinki Olympics, the Bellwoods moved to the warmer climate in Auckland for Emmy’s health, and Williams followed.
Of course, Williams then went on to be the first New Zealand woman to win Olympic gold, in the long jump.
Bellwood coached Götz at the Gymnos Gymnastics Club, shaping her into a world-class gymnast. “She was lovely; I loved her to bits,” Götz says. “In Prague in 1962, Emmy took us to see the Russians train because she could speak Russian.”
Götz thinks it was more about Bellwood’s desire for her to go the Olympics that she ended up in Tokyo. Ironically, Bellwood didn’t get to go. The New Zealand team was instead coached by David McKenzie-Edwards, who was Spencer’s coach.
The Kiwi gymnasts were three of only eight women in the New Zealand team in Tokyo (along with one swimmer and four track and field athletes). One of them returned home with a medal – middle distance runner Marise Chamberlain who won bronze in the 800m, and is still the only New Zealand woman to win an Olympic medal on the track.
At the opening ceremony, the women in their white and red uniforms marched just behind flagbearer Sir Peter Snell (who won two gold medals on that very track).
The women had their own village, which Götz remembers was a long walk from the dining hall and the bus that took them to the Tokyo Metropolitan Gymnasium.
In those days, gymnasts were required to do eight routines: four compulsory and four voluntary. “They dropped the compulsories because they got a bit boring and the stadiums weren’t full,” she says.
When it came to the Olympic competition, Götz was the best of the New Zealand gymnasts, finishing 75th overall. Gardiner, who now lives in the United States, was 76th and Spencer (now in Australia) 79th.
Götz’s enduring memory, though, was witnessing first-hand the rest of the world’s best gymnasts at their best: “We watched them in awe.”
Although the Soviet gymnasts dominated that era, it was Czech Věra Čáslavská – a secretary from Prague – who shocked by winning the all-around gold. She beat Russian legend, Larisa Latynina, who still holds the record for the most Olympic medals won by any female athlete – 18.
Götz tried to qualify for the 1968 Mexico Games, but New Zealand did not send any gymnasts to those Olympics. She would go on to be the national gymnastics champion five times – a record that remains unrivalled.
She laughs that she married one of her coaches, Martin Götz, who’d left his native Germany for Australia, then settled in New Zealand.
While the couple spent time living in Karlsruhe, they coached the two New Zealand gymnasts at the 1972 Munich Olympics – Dianne Foote and Terry Sale, our first male gymnast. They left the Olympic village the morning the Palestinian terrorists attacked the Israeli team.
“Terry Sale was right next door to the Israelis. We knew nothing about it until we got home,” she says.
After moving back to New Zealand, Team Götz ran the Auckland School of Gymnastics together. Their three daughters all became keen gymnasts, too.
Dido Götz says she’s enjoyed all aspects of her gymnastics life – from athlete to coach, judge, convenor of the national women’s selection panel, competition organiser and administrator (she ran the Auckland gymnastics association in the 1990s).
She’s received an IOC Volunteer of the Year award, and joined her husband as a life member of Gymsports NZ.
“My career has done a full circle,” she laughs. And as she does her daily stretching routine, she could probably still pull of some of the tricks that made her one of New Zealand’s first Olympic gymnasts.