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Whatever happened to...?

Otago Blues Crests banner

Whatever happened to… the University of Otago Blues?

First awarded in 1908, University of Otago Blues continue to be highly prized as a recognition of outstanding student sporting achievement.

Otago was the first New Zealand university to adopt the traditional English university Blues system, which began at Oxford and Cambridge universities with the awarding of a “Blue” to rowers and then, later, to other sportspeople. The name derived from the light blue colours worn by the Cambridge rowers and the dark blue hues of the Oxford crews taking part in their annual boat race on the Thames.

In 1908, the Otago University Rugby Football Club asked the Otago University Students’ Association to authorise Blues – marked by a special blue jacket – for rugby. The association went further and awarded Blues that year to 10 rugby players, nine men’s hockey players and eight women’s hockey players.

The number of eligible sports increased steadily. Early additions included conventional sports such as athletics, boxing, tennis, soccer, cricket, netball, basketball, rowing, swimming, shooting, skiing and golf.

Sports more recently embraced by the awards include aerobics, equestrian, lacrosse, mountain running, scuba diving, skeleton racing, snow boarding, speed skating, ice hockey, ice figure skating, handball, futsal, bodybuilding, power lifting and rogaining (a type of orienteering).

Otago Blues recipients include a who’s who of New Zealand sporting fame: from athletics great Jack Lovelock in 1930, to more recent sporting stars such as swimmer Danyon Loader, cyclist Greg Henderson, rugby players Anton Oliver and Farah Palmer, netballers Lesley Nicol and Belinda Colling, and dual international basketball and cricket representative Suzie Bates.

OUSA has extended the sporting accolades beyond Blues awards for specific sports. In 1960, it introduced the sportsman of the year award: Olympic men’s hockey team member John Cullen was the first winner.

In 1967, award organisers were faced with the phenomenon of a woman, Rae Johnston (later Henderson), winning the sportsman of the year award, for netball. Now retired and living in Waikanae, she recalls that, “I can still see some faces looking quite stunned. I don’t think they had contemplated a woman winning the award. It was amazing to receive the award. It was the top award as far as university sport went.”

The sportsman of the year name persisted into the 1980s, despite several further female winners, before the name was changed to sportsperson of the year. In 2010, the association replaced the sportsperson award with two separate awards: for sportsman and sportswoman of the year.

In 1990, OUSA introduced an award for club administrators, replaced in 2008 by an award for outstanding contribution to sport. Netballer Angelina Yates was the inaugural winner of the Måori sportsperson of the year award, introduced in 2001; the Otago University Harrier and Multisport Club was the first recipient of the award for sports club of the year, introduced in 2004; and rugby coach Helen Littleworth was named the first coach of the year, in 2013.

Mild controversy surrounding the Blues awards has occasionally extended beyond the inevitable debates arising from the subjective task of selecting a few from the many. In 2009, for example, the Otago University Rowing Club boycotted the Blues awards, because it felt that they had been devalued by a name change – from University of Otago Blues to OUSA Blues – which had been made the previous year to coincide with the awards’ 100th anniversary. The association promptly reverted to the original name.

OUSA has not only increased the number of sporting awards, but also extended the scope of the awards to embrace outstanding cultural, artistic and community contributions by Otago students, through associated Golds awards introduced in 2002.

The inaugural recipients included Anna Leese, for singing; and Hayley Adams, for her involvement in Habitat for Humanity.

OUSA has also expanded these honours to include awards for outstanding contributions to arts and culture; services to faculty clubs; club of the year and society of the year; and, last year, community awards for altruistic students who have given back to the University and the city.

OUSA clubs development officer Sarah Taylor explains that a panel of OUSA Executive members and people with outside expertise decide which of the nominees will receive awards each year. She says that choosing Blues winners is usually more straightforward than deciding what constitute standout contributions deserving Golds awards.

OUSA recreation manager Michaela Tangimetua says that the Golds awards, in particular, are important in recognising students’ hard work and positive contributions. “That might be the only formal acknowledgement they get, and people might otherwise never see what they are doing.”

No one gets a blue jacket to wear these days, but all Blues and Golds awards recipients are presented with a plaque, and major award winners with a miniature replica of the trophy and some cash, at the annual awards function each September.