Coffee with the Minister of Sport

By David

Since I’ve been back in New Zealand I’ve heard Swimwatch opinions on the administration and funding of sport described as disagreeable and vexatious. They are not. They are sincere views expressing concerns about the future of this sport. They could be wrong. They are certainly not written on tablets of Mt. Sinai stone. And they should not be a cause for personal attacks that put at risk employment and livelihood. Two days after I arrived back in New Zealand I received a call from a lady based in rural New Zealand who said she would like to meet me in a down town coffee shop because she didn’t want to be seen talking to me at a swimming pool. “There are some people,” she said, “who have not forgotten your Swimwatch articles.” Her concern bordered on fear. I declined the invitation. The views expressed here are no reason to hide in central city coffee shops.

If they were a New Zealand Minister of State and some main stream journalists will soon be spending a lot of time in Starbucks. The May 9th edition of the New Zealand Sunday Star-Times, contained a report by Greg Ford. Here, in part, is what it said:

“Sports Minister Murray McCully appears set to implement sweeping changes to how taxpayer money is spent on sport which could threaten of Sparc and the New Zealand Academy of Sport. McCully has taken the rare step of personally intervening in a bid to coax Fouhy out of retirement. Their alliance could have far-reaching effects for sport. Having also met with Olympic Gold Medalists, Valerie Vili and Hamish Carter, the Star Times understands McCully has endorsed theirs and Fouhy’s ideas on how high performance should be funded.

They believe the sector has become weighed down in bureaucracy, is inflexible and needs streamlining if New Zealand is to be competitive on the international sporting stage.

Sparc hands over about $42M a year in high performance funding to national sports organizations. They in turn use most of that money to fund high performance programmes, pay coaches, athletes and travel expenses.

But McCully believes some sports administrators have formed their own private fiefdoms and exert unhealthy amounts of control over public funds and taxpayers and athletes deserve a more transparent and flexible funding model. National sporting organizations are nervous about the changes because they could erode their influence of top athletes. If they fall out with their national body, their funding life-line has, in the past, been cut. In the future if they fit within certain criteria they will be able to short-circuit that process and apply directly to the one-stop-shop funder for resources.

As well as cutting out the double handling of funds, McCully wants these athletes to be able to apply for funding in 4 year blocks, to match the Olympic cycle. He told one source that it was “crazy top athletes dreams could be shattered on a single year’s performance.”

I agree with the thrust of the Ford article. That is not strident or revolutionary or a cause to be branded a trouble maker. It is simply an alternative point of view on how to best win Olympic swimming races. New Zealand has not done that since 1996. And even then it was done by a comparatively loner coach and his talented student in far off Dunedin. There were no pathway initiatives or centralized elite training squads when Duncan Lang was around. Like it or not though he got the job done.

It is not unreasonable for Swimwatch or anyone else involved in this sport to wonder if there is a better way than the course we are on at the moment. It is no secret that Swimwatch support the principle of a diversified regional team based program similar to that proposed by Arthur Lydiard and implemented by him successfully in Finland. We agree with Natalie Wiegersma; its “bloody good” down there in Southland. That may be branded as vexatious by those committed to the status quo. But it’s not. It is simply another way. One that we think will yield better returns; a better pathway perhaps. The elite athlete initiative being suggested by McCully is also a good one. Obviously Swimwatch agree with his concern. We also support the solution suggested in the Ford article. We’ve been saying so for about four years.