For nearly 30 years the boxer and Olympic medalist David Tua has been ridiculed for something he says he never said. Why has the nation never listened? George Driver writes.
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“O for awesome.”
It is one of the most renowned quotes in Kiwi history. One letter and two words that changed a life, and a country, forever. A linguistic slip that perhaps did more to define one of New Zealand’s greatest athletes than more than a decade of sporting feats. When the media list the greatest moments in TV history it is almost invariably in the top 10, along with Thingy’s eye falling out, Angela D’Audney’s boobs and Muldoon’s schnaps election. A YouTube video of the Wheel of Fortune gaffe has clocked up 468,000 views. It’s spawned t-shirts, a beer, hair accessories, even a baby’s onesie. It’s been a source of ridicule for one man for nearly 30 years.
And it never happened.
Multiple sources – and Tua himself – have confirmed that he said “O for Olsen” on that now infamous Wheel of Fortune episode on October 10, 1992, and the evidence is in his favour. But nothing Tua or his supporters have said since has been able to change the collective mind of the nation.
Tua was 19 at the time. It was just two months after he won a bronze medal at the Barcelona Olympics and two months before his professional boxing debut. But already he had reached the peak of national celebrity, appearing on the country’s favourite gameshow which led into One Network News at 6pm.
For half an hour, Tua competed against Fair Go “intrepid reporter” Rosalie Nelson and the mulleted actor/musician Andy Anderson, in a bid to help Moana Robinson from New Plymouth win an “unashamedly sporty” Ford Telstar (“which delivers the power and performance to match its sleek good looks”).
The supposed gaffe occurs when the baby-faced and visibly nervous Tua makes his first spin of the wheel and while he mistakenly requests an O – he wasn’t able to buy a vowel that early in the round – listening back it seems clear he said “O for Olsen”.
Tua ends up losing the game. Moana from New Plymouth gets “a beautifully crafted pen and pencil set” (“a writing implement for all occasions”) as a consolation prize, while Tua walks away with a compact Sanyo telephone answering system.
But how and when the phrase “O for awesome” entered the national lexicon after this is unclear. During the show, the moment passes without mention. It doesn’t show up on Google until 1999, when it appears in a Mangere College yearbook, but others say the reaction was immediate (I was three at the time) and it’s been a running joke ever since.
But why Olsen? Tua says he was referring to the Samoan rugby league legend Olsen Filipaina. Filipaina represented New Zealand in the sport from 1977 to 1986 and was one of the first Samoans to play in the NRL. Like Tua, he was from Māngere East and went to Otahuhu College.
In the book The Big O: The life and times of Olsen Filipaina, released last year, Tua is adamant he’s been misquoted.
“They gave me a hard time about saying ‘O for awesome’, but any Samoan that listens to it will clearly tell you I’m saying ‘O for Olsen’,” Tua said in the book. “I’ve made peace with it now and I’m happy that I’m linked in with the great Olsen Filipaina. He inspired us all to be better.”
The Big O author and Guardian sports writer Patrick Skene says: “Tua unequivocally confirmed it was O for Olsen when I interviewed him”.
“He has confirmed it numerous times,” Skene says. “Also, a number of Samoans have confirmed it is clearly O for Olsen when accent nuances are factored in.”
Skene says Filipaina was a trailblazer for Pasifika sport and one of South Auckland’s first heroes and would have been an obvious name for Tua to reference in the show.
“Olsen was a superhero in South Auckland and would have superseded O for Orange as the best example for the vowel,” Skene says. “South Auckland and the wider Pasifika community needed its first hero and he [Olsen] reluctantly stepped up to fill that role. He was their template – humble, played with a spontaneous and instinctive combination of brute power and great skill and he always played with a smile.”
Filipaina’s brother, Alf, an Auckland Councillor for the Manakau Ward, is just as certain that Tua said Olsen.
“I know he did. He told us,” he says.
Alf Filipaina was a police officer when he first met Tua, who was a 16-year-old student at Otahuhu College, and says Olsen was an inspiration. “Our families are from the same village – his dad and my dad are related – and he knew me and Olsen came from Otahuhu College, so Olsen was a hero for him.”
But why didn’t Tua set the record straight from the start?
Alf says he did.
“He tried to explain it, but obviously people just believed what they needed to believe to make it go on. I felt sorry for David. We were hurt. We knew what he said. It was so wrong what they did. But people just wanted to carry on with this ‘O for awesome’ crap and wanted to keep it alive. It’s just shit basically.”
Samoan actor and director Oscar Kightley agrees that Olsen would have been an obvious choice for Tua.
“I feel like a grave injustice has been committed because it is very clear he said ‘O for Olsen’,” Kightley says. “Olsen was a hero in his community and to all of us. Olsen Filipaina’s nickname was ‘the big O’, so it’s not surprising to me that when David asked for an O, the name he associated with O was Olsen. He was our big O.
“David’s not stupid. But I feel like rather than being a cute pop culture moment for New Zealand I think it was a pretty awful way to treat one of our heroes. People easily expect that this young Samoan boxer wasn’t smart enough to know the difference between an O and an A. On a deeper level, that’s pretty upsetting too.
“When NZ on Screen had it on its top moments, I thought that was pretty awful, because they’re still making out, even now, that this young man that boxed for New Zealand and won an Olympic medal accidentally said this, when it wasn’t true.
“I feel like David Tua is owed an apology.”
David’s ex-wife, Robina Tua, has also tried to set the record straight, calling a radio show more than a decade ago, convincing the hosts that Tua said Olsen.
Tua saying “Olsen” also makes sense in the context of the show. Of the 17 other guesses, 13 are made using a first name as a reference when requesting a letter. The two guesses immediately preceding his infamous turn were “T for Tim” and “B for Bill”.
But not everyone is convinced of Tua’s explanation. In an interview on NZ On Screen’s Screentalk, Wheel of Fortune producer Gavin Wood is adamant that Tua said “awesome”. He said: “I’ve heard so many people say, ‘no, it wasn’t O for awesome it was O for Olsen’, and it’s kind of like, ‘no’. I was the producer. I sat in the chair and listened to David being a little confused and saying O for awesome.
“I edited out the other vowels that he asked for. I edited out quite a lot actually. I never kept it, but I should of [sic]. So we cleaned it up to make it as tidy as we could, and not as to be as embarrassing as it could be. But O for awesome was definitely what was said.”
The late host Phillip Leishman was equally adamant. During another Screentalk interview, Leishman said that he initially missed David saying “awesome”.
“It actually rolled past me. When he said it I sort of thought ‘O for awesome, yeah sure, that’s fine’ and it didn’t dawn on me at the time and yet it became such a talking point… I think I made him probably sound a bit better than he really was by really ignoring it.”
But did he not hear it the first time because it didn’t happen? There’s a well-known phenomenon where people mishear a word when they are expecting a different word, perhaps most famously illustrated by the “yanny/laurel” videos, which have hundreds of millions of views on YouTube. As a professor of speech sciences has explained, when a pronunciation isn’t clear, the brain attempts a ‘best fit’ – if you’re expecting one word, the brain enters it in. Did the entire nation fall for this audio fallacy? Or is this, as Samoan comedian Rose Matafeo once asked, “the most racist shit of all time?”
But how did “O for awesome” rise to become such an icon and why didn’t people believe Tua when he tried to correct the record?
Tua didn’t respond to requests for an interview.
“I don’t think David should have to explain himself any more,” Kightley says. “He has already corrected the record. It’s not his job to figure out why some people still think he said that.”
In the end Tua embraced the phrase, running the number plate ‘040SUM on his 1973 mini.
“I think he’s just getting tired of saying ‘this is what I said’,” Alf Filipaina says. “That’s how we are in the Pacific. He was telling people, ‘I did not say awesome’. But people just said, ‘yeah, yeah, whatever,’ and just carried on. So what do you do? You don’t go through life being bitter and angry because that’s not going to help you. It’s better to embrace it and say to yourself ‘people are going to believe what they are going to believe. I don’t want to spend my time trying to convince the doubters’. I would do the same.”
But doesn’t Tua deserve better?
Only one man knows the truth of what happened on that day in Avalon Studios in 1992. He gave New Zealand a bronze medal, a heavyweight title, he’s an Officer of the NZ Order of Merit. Isn’t it time we give him the benefit of what little doubt there is?