In this final post on the recent report into Cycling New Zealand (CNZ) I will address the question of medals and money V athlete welfare. This argument has been made many times in relation to New Zealand sport. The allegation is that because Sport NZ links Olympic medal success to the amount of their funding, New Zealand sports push athletes over the edge. Supporters of this view link the death of Olivia Podmore to the obsession for medals and money. Her welfare was sacrificed so that others could live like kings on the taxpayer’s dime.

For example, TV1 News recently reported that, The relentless pursuit for medals in high performance sports in New Zealand could be a big contributor to the issues appearing around athlete welfare. High performance sports in New Zealand ‘consumed’ by medal expectations, leading to issues in athlete welfare – that’s the opinion of NZ Athletes Federation chairman Rob Nichol”.  

There is a certain amount of truth to that argument. Sport NZ do link medals to money in an obvious and rather “back-street-loan-shark” sort of way. There is no loyalty when Sport NZ looks bad. Between 2014 and 2021 Swimming New Zealand (SNZ) won nothing at the Olympic Games and competitive membership dropped by 28% from 6359 in 2014 to 4553 in 2021.

Sport NZ’s funding reflected the sport’s barren performance. In 2014 Sport NZ paid SNZ for the centralised training program, $2,207,375. By 2021 that funding had fallen off a cliff to $829,500 – a drop of 62%. When the tough get going Sport NZ is out of there.

Bad coaches and administrators are affected by the spectre of reduced funding and make bad decisions – like the CNZ payment of bribes and the “illegal” swapping of riders at the Olympic Games. Like SNZ’s decision to appoint and then abandon Gary Hurring and Donna Bouzaid. Like the National Coach verbally abusing 15-year-old Jane Copland in a Sydney Hotel. Like the way Alan Thompson has been treated by Canoe Racing NZ.

However, Sport NZ’s bad behaviour is no excuse for these examples of treachery. Sport NZ could offer coaches like Laing, Jelley, Lydiard, Tonks, Thompson, Hurring or me any amount of their money and it would not alter our training or behaviour one millimetre. Good coaching cannot be bought or sold by Sport NZ’s money. Our loyalty to our athletes far exceeds the contents of Castle’s cheque book.

Bad decisions made to secure Sport NZ’s money are made by weak, bad people – not because of the link Sport NZ makes between Olympic medals and funding. Just because Sport NZ tries to buy medals and people does not mean coaches and administrators must become as bad as those who set the honey trap. The right thing to do by those that we coach is the right thing to do irrespective of the loan sharks working for Sport NZ. The problem at CNZ was those receiving the cash became as bad as those handing it out.

There is a solution. It comes in three steps. All of which have been promoted by this blog on several occasions.

  1. One: reject the policy of centralised training. Return to a decentralised model that allows athletes to choose their location and their coach. In the past I have called this – “to sleep in their own bed at night.” Do not make Sport NZ’s financial support dependant on being attached to a centralised facility and coach. In the two years since swimming has changed back to a decentralised structure the benefits have been huge – in terms of both performance and welfare. We have an example of a sport that has done the right thing – and it’s working brilliantly.
  2. Two: increase the financial support paid to athletes to the minimum wage based on a collective contract and an independent athlete’s union.  
  3. Three: restore each sport’s democratic institutions. Clip Castle’s autocratic wings. All Board members should be democratically elected. That change puts a ring fence around the athlete of people responsible to the membership for their position on the Board. The conflict of interest between appointed members whose current loyalty is compromised by their allegiance to Sport NZ disappears. Athletes are protected by bringing democracy back to NSOs. Castle is returned to her job of handing out money – period. The function of running New Zealand sport is removed from Sport NZ and returned to the membership. If a sport needs imported expertise the selection should be done by a democratic Board NOT the Castle clan. Step three is of vital importance. Do it now. Only when Sport NZ show a tangible readiness to reduce their direct power, will I believe there is a willingness to change the environment that killed Olivia Podmore.  

Implement these three steps and the current emphasis on having sport’s psychologists on call 24/7 will reduce dramatically. TV1 News told me last week that Eliza McCartney has a team of eleven people guiding her training. No wonder the athlete is struggling. All eleven of her experts will find a “lamp post to pee on”. How McCartney has done as well as she has is a wonder to me.

The purpose of the reforms suggested here is to reduce the need for all that stress management spending. A happy athlete does not need it. Peter Snell had Lydiard alone. Loader had Laing alone. Walker had Jelley alone. Marise Chamberlain, Lorraine Moller, Anne Audain, Yvette Williams and my wife, Alison seemed to be able to win championships and break national records without eleven hangers on. A happy, independent athlete who has the freedom to choose their own help, to make their own decisions – wins. Medals, welfare and money can coexist.

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