A Fox In The Hen House

I see the Minister of Sport, Grant Robertson, has weighed into the bullying in sport issue. In a NZ Herald report he wept crocodile tears about athletes affected by a “win at all costs” mentality. Sadly he missed completely the critical matter of responsibility. But more of that later; let’s look first at what he said. The table below shows some quotes taken from the NZ Herald report.

Sport Minister Grant Robertson believes bullying is alive and well in New Zealand sport.

Sports and Recreation Minister Grant Robertson says New Zealand sport’s “win-at-all-cost” mentality is putting athletes’ wellbeing at risk.

Last year, New Zealand Athlete Federation boss Roger Mortimer said he believes New Zealand sport has lost its way and created an unsafe environment for some athletes.

Mortimer believes the issue is preventable and comes down to a lack of leadership in New Zealand sport.

Robertson told the Herald he believes the issue needs to be at the “forefront” and that Sport NZ, the governing body that oversees sport in New Zealand, are working closely towards changing the sporting environment.

“Through Sport NZ they’ve been taking a very close look at these issues in the context of the whole overall question around player welfare. And so that work is now underway.”

The minister believes improving the sporting environment for athletes will be beneficial not only for their wellbeing but also for the country’s sporting achievement.

Minister of Sport Robertson is right and horribly wrong. As he says, bullying is alive and well in New Zealand sport; the “win-at-all-cost” mentality is putting athletes’ wellbeing at risk.” That’s right, that’s true and that’s serious. Recognising the problem is an important first step. But what he does not address, what he leaves out altogether is who created the mess? Who caused the bullying culture? It sure as God made little green apples didn’t happen on its own. Someone was responsible for approving the use of bullying; someone promoted the culture of “win at all costs”.

Incredibly the person Robertson has put in charge of curing the problem, the CEO of Sport NZ, Peter Miskimmin, is the person who caused it. The fox has been put in charge of the hen house.

Let’s consider an example of how Miskimmin has encouraged the toxic environment that now infests New Zealand sports. Nowhere is there a better example than the sport of swimming.

Miskimmin has long been desperate for high performance results from swimming. After organizing a power grab of swimming in 2011, Miskimmin needed competitive success to justify the policies his appointed minions imposed on the sport. He planned to achieve competitive results using two policies – money and centralised training. He built a centralised training pool. He scoured the world for alien coaches from Australia, the UK and the United States – anywhere except New Zealand. He poured millions into the sport and he encouraged a policy that dragged talented swimmers from their home clubs to the Swimming New Zealand Antares Place holy waters.

And it didn’t work. For a while Lauren Boyle papered over the failings but the policies were doomed. Miskimmin is a vicious boss. Someone had to pay. And it certainly was not going to be him. Miskimmin decided the sport had let him down; the sport had failed to properly implement his policies. Miskimmin’s policies were not the problem. Swimming was the problem. Swimming was going to pay. He would do this by stripping swimming of the life blood it needed most – Miskimmin’s money.

Swimming would be taught a lesson. Winning was non-negotiable. Losing came with a high cost. Failure would not be tolerated. Other sports would learn from the price swimming was about to pay. The wages of losing was financial strangulation.

The table below shows how Miskimmin actioned his devious plot.

Year Sport NZ Funding $ Decrease % Decrease
2018 1,176,498 236,650 16.7
2017 1,413,148 245,882 14.8
2016 1,659,030 530,533 24.2
2015 2,189,533 305,759 12.3
2014 2,495,292 0 0
Total   1,318,824 52.9

And it worked. Oh, swimming’s results did not get any better. Miskimmin’s policies still prevented that miracle. But fear of Miskimmin’s financial wrath was communicated clearly. You see those who manage sport in New Zealand are not all that bright. They scare easily. But they know enough to understand that a 53% reduction in funding puts at risk the thing they value most – their own pay packet. Failing athletes cannot be allowed to get away with putting the bureaucrats cushy life-styles at risk.

The CEO of SNZ, Steve Johns, was very clear on that point when he addressed a meeting of swimming parents in Wellington. He explained that the best way to secure better funding was improved international results. Winning at all costs was accepted as established law. Miskimmin had made his point.

The fall-out spread wider than swimming. Sport after sport took harsh actions to avoid the same fate. Cycling, hockey, rowing and soccer all over-reacted; desperate to preserve their funding, desperate to curry favor with Peter Miskimmin.

And now Robertson has put Miskimmin in charge of implementing a more balanced approach. It is ridiculous. A more balanced approach would require Miskimmin to reject the policies he has imposed for a decade. Centralised training would have to go. Financial rewards and punishments based on competitive performance would need to be abandoned. And most of all the fox would need to be evicted from the hen house.

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