Medals first puts sport last

Sports funding agency SPARC is selling us a dummy.

Last week it announced its high performance strategy through to the London Olympic Games in 2012. The strategy involves investing substantial sums of money in just nine sports with the others left to pick up the crumbs.

In a crude, simplistic plan the allocation aims to get “New Zealand athletes and teams winning in events that matter to New Zealand”.

On this basis rugby, cricket and netball are “targeted” to win world championships by 2012 while swimming, rowing, sailing, triathlon, athletics and cycling will be expected to bring back at least 10 medals from the London Olympics.

These “winner” sports will get 70% of the $33 million available while sports like softball, hockey and rugby league will have to fight for the crumbs after the big nine have finished feasting.

SPARC Chief Executive Nick Hill said the egalitarian tradition whereby most sports were entitled to some taxpayer funding were over. In a truly worrying statement he said “We are behaving like a bank…where can we put the dollars to have the best chance of success?”

It’s the equivalent of a school putting all its resources into the top stream academic classes while those less able are left to flounder. It does happen but it’s as wrong in sport as it is in school.


Surely SPARC has a bigger vision than this? Instead of just a few medals at Olympic and Commonwealth Games shouldn’t we be focusing on the overall development of sport and its role in our community?

Yes, it’s good to win medals and we like to see black singlets on the podium in foreign countries with the national anthem playing. And yes, it’s nice to bask in the warm glow of reflected glory gained on the international stage. Especially if our tally beats the Australians on a population basis.

But it’s also great to see the tens of thousands of youngsters, teenagers and their families playing touch rugby every week across our less flash suburbs. This matters to New Zealand but where is touch rugby in the allocations?

To target sports for gold-medal funding is a short-sighted, stunted view of sport. It smacks of continuing insecurity and lack of maturity as a country. Some of us seem to be still looking for approval from others overseas instead of being self confident about our place in the world.

SPARC’s attitude reflects comments earlier this year from Sports Minister Trevor Mallard who suggested kiwis don’t have the mental toughness to succeed in top-level sports competition. He was upset that our medal tally from the Melbourne Commonwealth Games was below his expectations. There were too many fourths and not enough golds.


Such was his frustration it seemed he might organise a march in Wellington calling for the fourth place getters to be branded “losers”.

At the time other commentators criticised sport in primary schools which encourages participation ahead of competition. The argument was that this produces mediocrity rather than international winners.

But both arguments are going no-where. So-called lack of mental toughness and so-called political correctness in sport are just expressions of frustration from the sidelines which again reflect the seriously insecure feelings of many New Zealanders. These are people who need constant reassurances we can foot it with the best overseas. 

It was pleasing at the time to see the lack of resonance for Mallard’s comments in the wider community. This in itself is a sign of a maturing attitude to sport and a growing self-confidence that we can do better – but on our terms rather than those of others.

At the end of the day SPARC’s allocations don’t put sport first. Instead their funding decisions pander to armchair viewers instead of the players, coaches and supporters of sports at local level. Surely if we want to encourage more New Zealanders to be sports participants rather than junk-food-eating, beer-swilling loafers who live their physical lives through the exploits of others then we should emphasise funding across all sports at local community level instead of purchasing a few medals at the top.

It could be that the allocation has as much to do with national politics as it does with sport. Apparently when our sports teams are doing well overseas we are a bit happier at home and in elections happy people tend to vote for the government in power. We have an Olympic Games and an election in 2008. One wonders how much influence Sports Minister Trevor Mallard had over the allocations.

There can be little doubt that the future health of our community relies more on touch rugby than gold medals in sailing. Someone should tell SPARC.