Sydney Olympic struggles, Part II: The aftermath of New Zealand’s worst ever Games

The Sydney Olympics were a major turning point for New Zealand sport, sparking a transformation that has yielded two decades of unprecedented success, as Michael Burgess explains.

Four. Five. Nine. Thirteen. Eighteen.

More than anything else, those five numbers encapsulate New Zealand’s remarkable Olympic journey over the past two decades.

The upward curve in our medal count since 2000 has been astounding and almost unprecedented. Only a handful of nations – out of the Olympic family of 207 countries – have managed continual increases over the past five Games – and none at the same scale.

The Rio output represented a 38 per cent increase on London, which had been a 44 per cent improvement on Beijing. And the 2008 tally of nine podium finishes had almost doubled what was achieved in Athens four years previously.

But such gains haven’t come easy, or by chance. They are the product of years of iterative changes, at many levels.

Undoubtedly, the flashpoint was the 2000 Games in Sydney. They were a major disappointment, given the huge expectations ahead of our “home” Olympics.

There had been hopes of our best ever medal tally, with a record number of competitors sent across the Tasman, but the return of four medals was the lowest since 1976.

Full NZ Olympic schedule below. Click on an athlete/team to see their bio, upcoming events, Games record and medal chance.

There were varying reasons; some athletes and teams simply underperformed, but there was also a realisation that the sporting system was a little bit broken. The 1996 Games had exposed some flaws – and Sydney confirmed the view that the framework had to change.

It was a disjointed model. The Sports Foundation, a private organisation set up in 1978 by a group of businesspeople, mainly focussed on funding individual athletes rather than programmes or national sporting bodies.

They were increasingly reliant on Hillary Commission grants, the government body responsible for both high performance and community/grassroots sport.

The commission, set up in 1987, had struggled with its all-encompassing mandate.

“Looking back, I would cut all individual [high-performance] funding,” outgoing chief executive Peter Dale told the Herald in June 2001, after 10 years in the role. “I would instead like to see the money used in providing the services – coaching, medical and other support.”

Then there was the New Zealand Olympic Committee, which had the final selection call and ran the Games team, and the various national sporting bodies.

“There was a realisation that the key organisations had to work together,” says former New Zealand Olympic team manager Richard de Groen. “There was a lack of genuine collaboration; Who is taking responsibility for the winning of the medal, or not winning the medal? Who is spending the money, getting the recognition?”

The first major step came with the creation of new crown agency SPARC (Sport and Recreation New Zealand) in 2003, integrating the Hillary Commission and the Sports Foundation.

North and South Island sports academies were set up around the same time, to provide the services from SPARC’s investment, and performance enhancement grants (PEGs) for individual athletes were introduced. Importantly, there was an NZOC representative on SPARC’s board, to promote alignment.

“The sports, the NZOC and the government agencies started to work much closer together,” says de Groen. “Patch protection broke down.”

The 2004 Olympics were an improvement, with five medals including three memorable golds, though there was an increasing recognition that SPARC’s “broad brush” approach was spreading the limited funding that was available too thinly.

From 2007 there was a push towards depth over breadth, with investment narrowed into six targeted Olympic sports (and three non-Olympic disciplines). It was harsh – and not universally popular – but the SPARC powerbrokers made no apologies.

The subsequent performance in Beijing represented a significant gain, with nine medals.

The next major step came in 2011, with the creation of Sport New Zealand, along with High Performance Sport New Zealand (HPSNZ), to replace SPARC.

“The system was a little fragmented,” says Peter Miskimmin, the long-time former head of Sport New Zealand. “That was the seed of creating HPSNZ, bringing together the North and South Island academies and SPARC’s High Performance Unit.”

The government made significant investments in infrastructure, with $20 million tipped into the expansion of the Millennium Institute (the national base for HPSNZ) and $40 million allocated for the development of other national and regional high-performance hubs, including rowing and canoe racing (Lake Karapiro) and cycling (Cambridge).

The creation of HPSNZ, as a wholly owned subsidiary of Sport New Zealand, was crucial. While both organisations were linked, there was distinct separation.

“We wanted them (HPSNZ) to have a bit of distance from the bureaucracy, to allow them to focus purely on performance,” says Miskimmin. “It’s an organisation totally dedicated to making athletes go faster.

“The model was unique. A wholly owned subsidiary of the government entity that is Sport New Zealand, but separated out, with a separate board, that had a mandate to focus purely on winning.”

There was more funding, better coaches, improved sports science and cutting-edge innovation, epitomised by the Goldmine project ahead of Rio which utilised top engineers to seek marginal gains in cycling, sailing and rowing, among other sports.

Athletes had increased opportunities to measure themselves against the best, spending more time in the heartland of their sports (usually Europe).

Running in parallel with the system changes was an attempt to create a stronger identity and culture within the New Zealand Olympic team. As long-time NZOC sports physiologist Gary Hermansson observes, there was a concerted effort to create a “home within the village, a New Zealand identity when you are away from home”.

It was seen as a missing link, after the experiences in Atlanta and Sydney, where some athletes choose to forgo the village experience.

“[In 2000] Hamish Carter thought it was a distraction,” recalls former NZOC media manager Gordon Irving. “He went and stayed in a townhouse in central Sydney.”

“He came back four years later, lived in the village, embraced everything about the Games and what we were doing as a team and as a culture.”

His results (26th in Sydney and gold in Athens) can’t be solely tied to that, but Carter has admitted since that it was a factor.

In Athens, the NZOC hierarchy adopted a “one team, one spirit” ethos, later the title of an award-winning documentary. The team almost visited the Phaleron war graves cemetery in Athens, to pay tribute to George Cooke, a rower at the 1932 Games who was killed in World War II.

At the 2010 Commonwealth Games in Delhi, there was a focus on Sir Edmund Hillary and his legacy in the region while the athletes in London (2012) were surrounded by tributes and information about their predecessors from 1948 who had competed in the English capital. In Rio, there was relationship built with a local favela.

Athens was also the beginning of integrating Māori culture and the haka into the Olympic team.

For de Groen, a lightbulb moment came a few hours before the opening ceremony in Sydney, as all the countries waited inside a large indoor stadium.

“The Americans had all these little USA flags, then the Canadian team suddenly threw a whole lot of frisbees,” recalls de Groen. “Then right beside us, a little team from Lesotho did an African dance and everybody stopped and watched them. The Tall Blacks stood up and said ‘Okay, we need to do something, we need to do the haka’.”

The problem was, almost no one else among the large New Zealand contingent (close to 200 athletes and officials) knew how to do the haka.

De Groen remembers Paul Henare rallying the troops, telling everyone the New Zealand basketball team would lead and they just had to try to follow.

“They quietened the whole stadium down and started the haka,” says de Groen. “It was a wonderful moment, but I remember thinking afterward, wow, how embarrassing … we don’t know how to do the haka.”

That was one of several episodes that prompted the NZOC hierarchy, led by de Groen and chef de mission Dave Currie to enrich the cultural base and identity of the team.

By 2004, the team had cultural ambassadors and a relationship with Ngāi Tahu. The flag bearer wore Te Māhutonga (the Māori cloak) and each athlete was given their own pounamu pendant. The use of haka became commonplace, especially with the welcomes for arriving athletes or medal winners.

“There was criticism – Dave Currie was called ‘haka Dave’ by the media,” says Hermansson. “It may have looked superficial from the outside but was very meaningful within the team.”

De Groen agrees: “There was a notion that we were doing the haka too many times but it was part of the concept of us as a team trying to find our identity. It was something for our own internal strength.”

There were other subtle, but important changes. Team officials had always marched at the front in the opening ceremony, with the athletes at the rear, but that was reversed from 2004 onwards.

“The management team used to lead the team in,” recalls Irving. “In Athens, the athletes led the way. It was Dave’s initiative, part of trying to be more athlete-focused and athlete-driven.”

The Sydney Olympics were a painful experience, but those Games have produced a remarkable legacy.

There was already an impetus for change, but the lack of success in 2000 sealed the deal, driving shifts at a micro and macro level.

The climax came in Rio.

Not just the 18 medals, but the fact they were garnered across nine different sports. And the haul could have been greater, with nine fourth-place finishes and 13 others inside the top eight.

“What astounded the world was not only the amount we got, but also the breadth of it, across so many different sports,” says Miskimmin. “We would get a lot of people inviting us to conferences, to find out what we were doing.”

De Groen, who served at five Games (three Commonwealth and two Olympic) before stepping down in 2006, says the process has been constantly refined.

“The focus from 1996 was the start of the change of the system,” says de Groen. “Money, resources, the right administrators, coaches, coach networks, sports science…all of those things that make up high-performance sport.

“Each time there has been an iterative step in developing partnerships, processes, systems, expertise, relationships, processes, and technology. That has helped the athletes come into sport and be successful.”

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