Sophie Armitage

Yvette Williams

Yvette Williams, New Zealand’s first woman on the podium: Yvette’s journey from nationals champion to Olympic gold medalist.

Yvette Williams, New Zealand’s first woman on the podium: Yvette’s journey from nationals champion to Olympic gold medalist.

Yvette Williams was a New Zealand track and field athlete, who made New Zealand sporting history with her achievements on the world stage. Her career saw her break numerous records and win many accolades. Her most notable achievement was being the first New Zealand woman to win a medal at the Olympic games. Yvette was born in Dunedin on the 25th of April 1929.[1] Her sporting career started early, and involved a wide range of sports. Williams was a talented netball and basketball player. She represented the South Island in both netball and basketball and represented New Zealand in basketball between 1950 and 1955.[2] Her athletics career began in 1947, when she joined the Otago Ladies Amateur Athletics Club.[3] Although she originally joined for social reasons, she quickly began to make a name for herself. She won the national shot put title in 1947 and her first national long jump title in 1948.[4] In total, she won 21 national titles across shot put, long jump, discus, javelin and the 80-metre hurdles. She eventually moved to Auckland from Otago in 1952 to follow Jim Bellwood, her trainer.[5]

While she was left out of the 1948 Olympic Games,[6] a  controversial decision at the time. She later won the long jump title at the 1950 Commonwealth Games held in Auckland. She broke the national, Commonwealth Games and British empire record at this event with a jump of  5.89 meters.[7] At this same meet she also won a silver medal in the javelin.[8] Yvette went on to continue to compete and smash records, particularly in long jump.

Yvette Williams (centre), after receiving her Olympic gold medal in 1952.

In 1952, Yvette was able to compete on the world’s biggest stage, the 1952 Helsinki Olympics.[9] In the buildup to the games, she spent all her spare time training while also balancing a job as a secretary at a law firm. She spent lunchtimes and after work training in order to continue her preparations. Due to a lack of financial support for athletes at the time, she also had to be inventive in her training methods. One way she did this was by running with army boots on in order to build strength and make her feel lighter without them.[10] At the Helsinki Olympics, she competed in the discus, shot put and long jump. Although doing well in discus and shot put, placing tenth and sixth respectively, long jump was truly her specialty. On the 23rd of July 1952, Williams won the Olympic gold with a jump of 6.24 meters, giving her the Olympic record as well.[11] Her Olympic medal was the first of any colour to be won by a New Zealand woman.

With her triumph in the long jump, Yvette firmly stamped her name in New Zealand’s history books as one of our top athletes. She went on to break the world record in 1954 for long jump. Continuing to compete with great success in many athletic disciplines. Her sporting achievements were recognised by her countrymen with Yvette being awarded the Sportsman of the Year in both 1950 and 1952.[12] She also received an MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire) in 1953.[13] Although Yvette retired in 1956,[14] she continued to have an impact on athletics through coaching as well as through her involvement with Special Olympians, helping to train intellectually disabled athletes.[15]

Yvette was continuously recognized for her contribution to sport many years after her retirement. She was inducted to the New Zealand Sports Hall of Fame in 1990 [16] and voted Otago Sportsperson of the Century in 2000.[17] She continued to contribute to New Zealand sport for the rest of her life. She established the Yvette Williams Scholarship in 2013 which provides financial support for an up and coming athlete each year. The scholarship is to help young athletes continue funding their training, a resource that Yvette and many other athletes at her time did not have the luxury of. Notable recipients of the award include weightlifter David Liti and sailors Gemma Jones and Jason Saunders[18].

Although in her later years she developed a brain abscess that inhibited her speech,[19] she continued to inspire the next generation by attending New Zealand Olympic Team events, so as to talk with and inspire other athletes. Yvette Williams passed away in April of 2019 at the age of 89, however her legacy remains strong and is still being recognised. Most recently, she was posthumously promoted to Dame Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to athletics in the 2019 Queens Birthday Honors[20]. Yvette Williams will continue to inspire future generations of athletes to achieve their dreams through her dedication to sport.

Sophie Armitage
Sophie Armitage

My name is Sophie and I am a 21 year old student at the University of Otago. I am currently in my final semester studying a Bachelor of Arts and Science, majoring in History and Psychology and minoring in Sports Science. I grew up always loving history and have continued with the subject to this day. Outside of my studies I am also a keen footballer and love to go out and get active whenever I can. 

Recommended Further Reading:

  • Kevin Boon, Yvette Williams, People of New Zealand History 2006, Kotuku Publishing

06 Feb 1951 – PROFILE Jumpers are her specialty – Trove (

Image Bibliography:
  1. Yvette Williams competing at the 1952 Helinski Olympic games in Long Jump, New Zealand Olympic Museum Collection. Yvette, setting the Olympic long jump record in 1952.
  2. New Dunedin meet honours Yvette Williams legacy | Athletics New Zealand. Yvette Williams (centre), after receiving her Olympic gold medal in 1952.
  3. A wonderful athlete and inspiration, it is a travesty Yvette Williams was never honoured with a Damehood | Yvette Williams with two time olympic shot put champion Valerie Adams.

Published: August 27th, 2021

Last modified: January 5th, 2022

Cite as: Sophie Armitage , Yvette Williams, Womens History of New Zealand, Last modified January 2022,