Over the past few weeks many New Zealanders, along with an estimated 3.5 billion people around the world, have been tuning into the wonderful spectacle of the Beijing Olympics. The Olympics have long been considered the pinnacle of sport, an event that brings people together to marvel at the extraordinary feats and capabilities of human performance.
One of the reasons the Olympics eclipse almost all other events on the sporting calendar is because it requires athletes to stand up at a particular time. There are no prizes for failing to do so meaning if athletes are not prepared, they miss out. Four, eight or even twelve years of effort are regularly tossed out for those unable to get it right on the day.
Whilst most of our Olympians will enjoy a well deserved break over the next month or so and we the public return to normal life, sports administrators the world over will trawl through their athletes’ achievements in an attempt to figure out how to do better in the future, and indeed whether the cost of trying to do so is worth the effort.
It is interesting to note our medal haul of 3 Gold, 1 Silver and 5 Bronze is the best overall result since Barcelona 16 years ago. If we couple this with 23 other top ten placings, including 5 fourth placings, it is a respectable return. Yet despite such efforts, there have been suggestions New Zealand is underperforming on the world stage and something needs to be done if we wish to maintain credibility. I am of the view such debates are necessary in order to establish a vision for the future of a nation’s sporting endeavours.
If New Zealand is serious about sport we need to look beyond the medal count in order to identify whether we want to ‘win’ international events or ‘participate’ in global sports. Whilst it may appear to some that I am suggesting we should settle for less, I am not. What I am suggesting is that we need to educate the nation so we understand the difference between winning international competitions in which very few nations participate and participating in global sports which, as a result, are far harder to win.
If we were to consider our national sports of Rugby and Netball for example, it is easy to see why Kiwis have developed an appetite for winning. Whilst Rugby is an exciting sport that has captured the imagination of numerous nations, it remains a fringe sport internationally. Many of the countries participating in the World Cup do not have a national competition per se but rather manage to field a team because of the passion and enthusiasm their often expatriate ambassadors demonstrate in enabling the game they love to get off the ground in their adopted homeland. Once in place, the opportunity for nationals to participate in a ‘World Cup’ is sufficient to spur them on. Because Rugby is not a big sport internationally our chances of winning, or at the very least of doing well, are extremely high.
Likewise, Netball remains virtually unknown beyond the shores of those familiar with the game. So even though it is a sport Kiwis love to play, our success in the past has as much to do with the fact we have very little competition between ourselves and the World Cup as it has to do with the skills and capability of our much admired players.
To give you an example, there are five nations generally considered capable of winning the Rugby World Cup and as such, tend to dominate the competition internationally (New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, France and England). In addition to this, there are four other nations who are considered capable, if not likely, to at least make a quarter final (Italy, Wales, Ireland and Argentina) as well as a few other committed nations who play with flair and are welcomed as worthy participants (i.e. Fiji, Samoa, Tonga, Canada and Romania). The rest in fairness do little more than make up numbers.
Compare this with say athletics where there were competitive athletes representing over 200 nations at the Beijing Olympics as opposed to only 14 nations who ‘compete’ in the Rugby World Cup. It is these statistics that have caused the likes of John Kirwan to say that Rugby is on the precipice of becoming irrelevant – similar to that of Rugby League where only 3 nations currently participate. If we were to look at Netball, there are only 5 nations at best who are considered capable of winning a World Cup (New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, England and Jamaica) compared to say swimming where there were competitive athletes representing over 180 nations in Beijing.
The point is, if New Zealand as a nation wants to ‘win’ international competitions, we could be very strategic in our investments and thus focus on sports where 1) we have the resources and expertise to participate and develop competent athletes and 2) commit to sports where there are very few nations capable of fielding a competitive team meaning our chances of succeeding are extremely high.
If after a robust debate we made the decision to focus our efforts with this in mind, it would be wise to focus on the likes of Rugby, Rugby League, Rugby Sevens, Netball, Softball and Cricket. Not because we are better at these sports than most, although in fairness we perhaps are, but because these are the sports we are most likely to succeed in due to the limited number of nations currently involved; for this reason it should be no surprise to note that these are the sports we typically do well in. If on the other hand, we want to do well at the Olympics i.e. win medals, we should focus our efforts on the likes of Rowing, Triathlon, Beach Vollyball, Hockey, Shooting, Archery, Badminton and to a lesser extent, Sailing and Equestrian events. If however we want to ‘compete’ in truly global sports, we need to continue to participate in larger sports like athletics, swimming and soccer.
There has been some discussion around the emergence of nations excelling in sports they haven’t traditionally performed well in. If we were to look into this phenomenon more closely we will see that it isn’t because they have somehow managed to develop extraordinary skills in an incomprehensibly short time but rather because they have focused their efforts on sports that are relatively small in regards to competing nations.
In my opinion it would not be surprising to see ‘new’ nations dominating a number of sports they have no traditional involvement in, namely those mentioned above, over the next 2 decades. The reason for this is because as the quest to claim greater medal counts intensifies so too will strategic investment. In fact over the past few days Andrew Matheson, the high performance director for New Zealand Rowing, illustrated this point by accepting a position as the new high performance director for Rowing Australia. Why is this? In my opinion it is because Australia has weighed up the competition and worked out there are 16 medals up for grabs in this sport alone and very few nations involved. In other words, they obviously believe it is better to focus their efforts by targeting sports such as Rowing where they are likely to get a good return on their investment rather than simply backing the efforts of committed participants across all sports. China will no doubt do the same.
SPARC, the Sport and Recreation Commission of New Zealand, is tasked with the responsibility of determining where and how government, or more precisely public, funds should be spent. They decide who gets what and why. It is an interesting albeit an unenviable challenge. One of the primary criteria SPARC uses as the basis of their rationale is who has done well in recent times. Whilst this may seem a perfectly reasonable approach, assuming an athlete or team will do well in the future because of past performance does not constitute sound judgment i.e. a sport may have done well in the past because of the efforts of one or two athletes but those athletes may now be nearing retirement. If there are no emerging athletes of any particular talent or nearing their peak, is it wise to invest in these sports and expect them to do well next time? In short the answer is no. Investing in sport is not a quick fix and nor is it a sure bet to the podium. It is, and needs to be, considered a long term strategy.
To give you an example, there are a number of sports that received greater funding because of their ‘improving’ performance in former times that performed below expectation in Beijing (think Women’s Hockey, Equestrian, Weight lifting, Badminton, Basketball and Taekwondo). On the other hand, there were sports that performed ‘better’ this year despite a drop in funding - which came about as a result of poor performances in recent years. What this suggests is that even though an increase in funding should theoretically help, it doesn’t guarantee an improvement in results. In my opinion one of the reasons for this is because SPARC does not meddle in where and how funds should be used once an allocation has been granted, and rightly so. To their credit they have agreed the sports administrators within each sport are better positioned to determine where and how their allocated funds should be invested. The problem is many sports administrators invest in administration as opposed to performance improvement and/or athlete development. Whilst a number have been known to voice their views publicly when criticised in an attempt to justify their thinking, it should be noted that it tends to be their own athletes complaining.
SPARC’s Chief Executive Peter Miskimmin said New Zealand’s Olympic sports need a huge cash injection of government money before the next Olympics or we risk a medal drought. He makes these comments on the basis the $34.5m the government has invested this year will be insufficient going forward if we want to compete with other nations (government high performance funding grew from $19m in 2001 to $34.5m in 2008. A total of $60m has been invested since Athens in 2004). I am not convinced this is accurate. The reason I say this is because the only true way to assess our prospects for London 4 years from now is to look within each sport and identify who is coming through and who may be ready to excel if they are well supported. In other words, it is highly unlikely there will be any athlete with a realistic chance of medaling who is not showing promise as we speak. The public may not have heard of them, but the coaches and sporting administrators certainly have.
In my experience I have observed (and assisted) many athletes and/or teams to achieve wonderful things without any government funding at all (hence the reason we developed our elite performance sponsorship programme). On the other hand, I have observed many athletes and/or sports receive significant funding but fail to produce the goods. The point I make is that it is very easy to spend money but spending money doesn’t guarantee an improvement in performance, especially if it is invested in administration. Needless to say, this is not dissimilar to the experience of many businesses!! It is important I point out that investment in administration, namely infrastructure, is vital to help develop the next generation of athletes. However, if SPARC continually reassesses the amount of funding a sport gets based on immediate past performance (which seems completely reasonable although it is not particularly intelligent) it is unlikely we will see the continual improvement in athletic achievements. There are numerous examples where an athlete has made it on their own only to find their success doesn’t deliver any great benefits to them but rather to those who wish to follow in their footsteps.
If we want to maintain a position as one of the worlds elite sporting nations, I believe it is important we not only focus on the likes of our national games of Rugby, Netball and Cricket but support the efforts of athletes competing in global sports, even though the likelihood of them achieving podium finishes in events such as the Olympic Games or World Championships is lower.
Whilst dominating minor sports is good for the nation’s ego, it doesn’t provide as much recognition or leverage as what would otherwise be achieved if we continue competing honorably across a multitude of sports.
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