New Zealand Olympic Committee

The leadership of New Zealand sport has been brought into question recently. Every second sport has been forced into one of Peter Miskimmin’s infamous reviews. Gradually the player power that is changing swimming around the world is being felt in New Zealand – not only in swimming but in all sports. For example players are asking to be more involved in planning a world rugby competition. And so they should – any plan that excludes the Pacific Island nations should never have seen the light of day. Hamish Bond was treated badly by Cycling New Zealand so he, rightly, left and went back to rowing. Over and over again the insufferable arrogance of sport’s administrators is being challenged. And it is long overdue.

It is interesting to note that Sir Owen Glenn might not agree with player power but is clearly annoyed with the insufferable arrogance of New Zealand sport’s administrators. In a hugely courageous and well deserved move Glenn suspended his two million dollar support of Hockey NZ and the New Zealand Olympic Committee (NZOC). He said his decision was in response to poor communication, poor leadership and his belief that the previous NZ women’s hockey coach was discriminated against. The refusal of Hockey New Zealand to publish their investigation into the coach’s position was Glenn’s central concern.

I have the same problem with the Syrian refugee swimmer I coach just now. The NZOC and Swimming New Zealand (SNZ) have discriminated against Eyad and no one will explain why. It is a wall of silence that New Zealand sport has long used to avoid explaining its decisions. I agree with Sir Owen Glenn – sport’s organizations need to act as good corporate citizens; sport’s organizations are being badly managed.

In Eyad’s case he is eminently qualified to be a member of the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) refugee program. His fastest time is faster than the fastest current member of the IOC refugee team swam in the Rio Olympic Games. But for some reason the NZOC and SNZ refuse to send his application to join the refugee program onto Switzerland for their consideration. We don’t know why. Is it because they don’t like his coach? Is it because they have something against Arabs and Muslims? Is it because he is a refugee and they are right-wing bigots? We just do not know. But what we do know is when people do bad things to refugees without explanation, bad people take that as a green light for actions like those in Christchurch today. Thank you NZOC. Thank you SNZ.

It can’t be a money problem. Forwarding Eyad’s application to the IOC is not going to cost the NZOC or SNZ any money. Their job is simply to say the information on the application is correct and send it to the IOC for IOC approval. The funding comes entirely from the IOC. And so lack of money is not a factor in their decision. It can’t be a speed problem. He is faster than all other members currently on the IOC refugee team. As I say we just don’t know.

Without question the decision of the NZOC and SNZ to turn their back on Eyad has caused harm. Since arriving in New Zealand Eyad’s treatment by Immigration New Zealand, by the Waterhole Swimming Club he joined, by the AUT University he has just begun, by the Millennium learn-to-swim school he works for and by New Zealanders in general has been hospitable, generous, welcoming and warm. As his coach and as a New Zealander it has made me humble and proud. To say it is more than Eyad ever expected would not be an exaggeration.

I was therefore surprised and hurt to come across NZOC and SNZ discrimination similar to what I knew Eyad had experienced in Saudi Arabia. For example, in Saudi Arabia, he was not allowed to swim in public pools because he was Syrian. I thought he had left all that behind when he arrived in New Zealand. It was therefore an emotional shock to confront a similar Saudi-type refusal to allow Eyad something to which he was entitled, without quantified reason or explanation. That did hurt especially because in Saudi Arabia both Eyad and I have seen the destructive results arbitrary discrimination can have. However the opportunity to have bad behaviour addressed is certainly not possible in Syria or Saudi Arabia. But it is in New Zealand – we will see what happens.

The second hurt caused by the NZOC and SNZ is financial. The purpose of the IOC refugee team is to provide refugees with the opportunity to benefit in ways that are not available to them in their home countries. When your home is being bombed by the government or the Russians or the Americans or possibly all three; when your relatives are being killed; when Syrian swimming pools are piles of concrete rubble; when Saudi pools are not available because of your race; when you cannot compete in foreign countries because Syrians are denied visa entry almost everywhere, pursuing a normal swimming career is extremely difficult. But do the NZOC or SNZ care? It seems not.

A large part of the IOC’s assistance is financial The IOC recognise that refugees arrive in their new country with very little. Eyad had a suitcase and $500 when I picked him up a year ago at Auckland Airport. Thanks to the generosity of his Millennium Swim School employer and Immigration New Zealand he has survived. The IOC refugee program offered him the chance to do better than that. His application was for a training grant of $1,200 a month. The decision of the NZOC and SNZ not to forward his application to the IOC is making paying for accommodation, university, food and transport extremely difficult.

But above the injustice of Eyad’s case lies a fundamental disease in the administration of New Zealand sport. Sir Owen Glenn has seen it and has acted. We do not have the resources of a Sir Owen Glenn but we too will act.

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