Team New Zealand

It has been quite a week for New Zealand sport. The All Blacks beat the British Lions in the first rugby test. Michael Venus won the doubles at the French Tennis Open. Scott Dixon won the Kohler Nascar Grand Prix. The women’s rugby sevens team won the 2017 World Championship. And Emirates Team New Zealand (ETNZ) won the America’s Cup.

Clearly the success of ETNZ is especially admirable. The America’s Cup is the world’s oldest international sporting trophy and is the place where some of the most arrogant and well-resourced participants come to seek sporting fame. Scottish businessman Sir Thomas Lipton, New York financiers, New Zealand business magnate Michael Faye, British railway tycoon James Lloyd Ashbury, the Earl of Dunraven, aviation industrialist Sir Thomas Sopwith, Australian businessman Alan Bond, billionaire Bill Koch, billionaire Raul Gardini Il, biotechnology entrepreneur Ernesto Bertarelli and owner of the Oracle Corporation Larry Ellison have all poured millions into the challenging or defending the America’s Cup.  

And yesterday the under-resourced minnow, ETNZ, won the America’s Cup. It is relevant to ask whether their success carried any lessons for New Zealand sport in general? I would argue that there are several important lessons.

First – minnows can win. Grant Dalton was right. If Oracle thought spending seven times more than they did was necessary, the money would have been spent. I’m not sure of the exact quote but Dalton said something like. “We knew we could not out spend them so we had to be smarter.” Lydiard, Jelley, Tonks and others thought the same way. It is a great feeling. Overcoming the odds. Winning against the big guys. David against Goliath. I am not a great one for nationalism but I think it is the way New Zealanders perform best. The lesson for swimming in what Dalton has done is clear. If you are part of a small club in Timaru, Te Awamutu, Taumaranui or Taradale you can win. You don’t need to be part of North Shore or Capital. You certainly don’t need to belong to the Swimming New Zealand Millennium Institute. Have the confidence to stay where you are and train smarter. It works.  

Second – independence works. Did you notice how ETNZ stayed in Auckland longer than the other teams quietly preparing, away from the politics and trash talk of Bermuda. What a good decision. Doing what’s right for you is important. A huge problem in New Zealand swimming is for years Swimming New Zealand has drip, drip, dripped the idea that when it comes to preparing swimmers SNZ knows best. The rest of us are inferior; not quite as good; not quite as smart. Swimming New Zealand’s Millennium Institute, we are told, is at the cutting edge of swimming preparation. They are the Oracle of the sport. But Dalton this week proved independence is more important than Oracle. Dalton’s decisions to not sign the agreement on how the cup should be run, to finish his preparation in Auckland, to design his own software and to employ a talented rookie helmsman and a rower and a cyclist to crew the boat showed us the value of independence. Is there any chance that similar initiatives in swimming would be allowed by Swimming New Zealand? Of course not. They are way too bureaucratic for that.

Third – expertise is important. There is no question that the people controlling affairs at ETNZ are yachting people. The CVs of Dalton, Burling, Ashby and others include Round the World races, Olympic medals and world championships. Those guys have been racing boats forever. And that knowledge of the sport is important. Compare that to swimming where the Board, the CEO and the National Coach have little or no knowledge of elite swimming. Oh, their webpages claim they have done some junior swimming, lifesaving and water polo. But none of that is elite swimming. They are bureaucrats making bureaucratic decisions. Because they do not know the product, they make decisions swimming people would never make. I had the same problem in Saudi Arabia. The federation CEO had no coaching experience but insisted on telling me how I should coach the national team swimmers. I finally snapped and told him that bureaucrats should stay away from the team’s training program. Hilariously, the CEO, a devout Mormon, told me to, “Fuck off.” But I was right. Just ask ETNZ.                

Fourth – centralized training does not work. If anything is the antitheses of the centralised training policy imposed on New Zealand sport by Baumann and Miskimmin the independence of ETNZ must be it. Can you imagine Grant Dalton being run and managed by HPSNZ? What a shambles. Certainly the America’s Cup would be on its way back to California today. The Swimming New Zealand Board would have had the Dalton team sailing at the Cambridge training centre where the boat’s daily practice on Lake Karapiro could be monitored by a HPSNZ biomechnist. And, as though more proof was needed, the America’s Cup has just been won by men HPSNZ discarded and abandoned. Simon van Velthooven was cut from the centralised Cycling New Zealand program for the Rio Olympic Games and according to Cycling New Zealand was, “Given permission to pursue other opportunities.” Little did those boffins know that they were releasing him to go off and win the oldest prize in world sport. Rower Joe Sullivan retired from rowing after centralized Rowing New Zealand left him out of the New Zealand squad for the Rio Games. And then ETNZ came knocking.

Fifth – New Zealand has something special. The success of ETNZ confirms that New Zealanders can look after themselves. Sure Dalton had an Australian skipper, and wealthy Italian and UAE sponsors but the core of the operation was New Zealand. Compare that to Swimming New Zealand where the policy direction is set by a Canadian, the CEO for years was an Australian, the National Coach has been Australian, English and is now an American. In fact two good New Zealander coaches have just been sacked to make way for the American coach. It is not difficult to reach the conclusion that this Swimming New Zealand Board operate on the policy of anyone except a New Zealander.

Clearly few of the qualities that have made ETNZ the toast of world sport today are present in New Zealand swimming. Perhaps that’s why New Zealand has won the America’s Cup three times in the last twenty years and in the same period swimming is yet to have an Olympic win. If the phone rings and it’s the SNZ Millennium Institute take another tip from Dalton – tell them you’ll call back.       


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