Se­crets of sus­tain­ing our sporting suc­cess

New Zealand ath­let­ics is on top of the game but how do we stay there, asks David Leg­gat

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Think Peter Snell and Mur­ray Hal­berg; then think Walker, Dixon and Quax; then, with the great­est re­spect, set them aside. Now i s the best pe­riod New Zealand ath­let­ics has had. So the ques­tion is: how to sus­tain it?

New Zealand sport has had golden pe­ri­ods in its past, which didn’t last.

Re­mem­ber the men’s hockey gold in Mon­treal in 1976. It was a fan­tas­tic achieve­ment but did it lead to sus­tained ex­cel­lence for a decade or more? No.

Ditto the All Whites’ won­drous trek around the globe to qual­ify for the World Cup finals for the first time in 1982. Did it her­ald a ma­jor leap in foot­ball’s stand­ing within the New Zealand sports com­mu­nity? No. It was an­other 28 years be­fore the All Whites were back in the finals. They face an uphill task later this year to reach Rus­sia next year too.

In hockey’s case, New Zealand are firmly en­trenched in the top eight na­tions for men and women but, and this is a hunch, it is not a sport which will have the nat­u­ral wide­spread ap­peal of other sports.

As for foot­ball, you have the world’s most pop­u­lar, and most pop­u­lous sport. New Zealand are al­ways go­ing to bat­tle to make the finals, al­though that may change with the ex­pan­sion of the finals due in a cou­ple of tour­na­ments time.

So what about ath­let­ics? When the knights, Hal­berg ( 1960) and Snell ( 1960- 64) were win­ning Olympic gold, they were in­di­vid­ual cases of out­stand­ing ath­letes as op­posed to be­ing part of a spread of sus­tained ex­cel­lence, al­though John Davies and the cel­e­brated Arthur Ly­di­ard group of run­ners would doubt­less de­mur.

Ditto John Walker, Rod Dixon and Dick Quax, who won Olympic medals and gave New Zealand a qual­ity pres­ence through the 1970s and early 1980s. And re­mem­ber none of those ath­letes had the world cham­pi­onships to fur­ther showcase their tal­ents. That event didn’t start un­til 1987.

But right now, across the spec­trum New Zealan­ders are mak­ing an im­pact, none more so than shot put­ter Tom Walsh, with his world cham­pi­onship vic­tory in London re­cently.

But go back. Va­lerie Adams has won t wo Olympic gold medals and four world cham­pi­onships since 2007; Nick Wil­lis has two Olympic 1500m medals and at 34 is still mak­ing world cham­pi­onship finals in the most glam­orous of run­ning events, and eye­ing a shift up to 5000m which will keep him in the sport a while yet.

Now there’s Walsh, the ami­able big man from Ti­maru, Jacko Gill, at 22 i s three years younger and fol­low­ing in his foot­steps, and rated a bet­ter per­former at the same age than Walsh; and how about El­iza McCart­ney, whose pole vault bronze medal at Rio’s Olympics last year lit up both her pro­file and the dis­ci­pline. Check out the sig­nif­i­cant up­swing in younger ath­letes, par­tic­u­larly women, for proof of that.

“It’s not just one- offs any more,” said Scott New­man, for­mer boss of Ath­let­ics NZ and now man­ag­ing Walsh and McCart­ney. “There is a sus­tained level of suc­cess. Suc­cess leads to pro­file, leads to in­creased par­tic­i­pa­tion, if you can har­ness it.”

So how to sus­tain this. In a nut­shell, coach­ing and fund­ing to en­able ath­letes to get chances to grow and re­alise their po­ten­tial. Two names, Dale Steven­son in Christchurch and Jeremy McColl in Auck­land, re­spec­tively coaches of Walsh and McCart­ney — but to en­large that, over­seers of a group of shot put­ters and pole vaulters — are the best ex­am­ples of what can be achieved with the right peo­ple in charge. “They are two in­cred­i­bly pos­i­tive peo­ple, good com­mu­ni­ca­tors, nice guys, very knowl­edge­able and clearly have the con­fi­dence of Tom and El­iza,” said na­tional ath­let­ics se­lec­tor Gra­ham Seat­ter. An­other Auck­land- based throws coach i s likely to be ap­pointed in the next few weeks. McColl al­ready has an as­sis­tant, Brent Booker, so the work can con­tinue while Steven­son and McColl are over­seas with the top ath­letes. Sev­eral coaches are based around the coun­try to help bud­ding ath­letes who are out of the main cen­tres.

But Ath­let­ics New Zealand’s high per­for­mance boss Scott Good­man isn’t sit­ting back on the suc­cess.

Ath­let­ics re­ceived a sig­nif­i­cant fund­ing boost at the end of last year from High Per­for­mance Sport New Zealand, lift­ing it back into Tier 1, along­side row­ing, sail­ing and cy­cling. Ath­let­ics re­ceives $ 2.6 mil­lion this year, $ 2.75m next year. Sud­denly there is sur­plus to go to­wards travel, coach­ing and more com­pe­ti­tion.

But Good­man has his eye on the level one down from the top.

New Zealand had 14 ath­letes at Rio last year; 12 in London for the worlds in Au­gust.

By Seat­ter’s mea­sure­ment, as one of those who sent the ath­letes away, about half per­formed up to, or bet­ter, than ex­pec­ta­tions; the other half didn’t.

“It was a good op­por­tu­nity to see some of them,” Good­man said of the London group. “But we think our bet­ter in­vest­ment i s in a group be­low that, maybe 16- 20 year olds where we’re in­vest­ing some of the money from ex­tra fund­ing into a pre- card­ing pro­gramme called a per­for­mance po­ten­tial squad.

“[ It’s about] mak­ing sure there’s ac­cess to good qual­ity coaches, money to travel and we’re putting money in there we couldn’t af­ford to do in the last four years.”

Waikato shot put­ter Ryan Bal­lan­tyne, al­ready knock­ing Walsh’s age group marks side­ways, seems sure to be at the world ju­nior champs in Fin­land next July; North Shore teenage pole vaulter Olivia McTag­gart was close to mak­ing the world champs, by Good­man’s reck­on­ing. They’re just the tip.

The spread of sports in which New Zealand was rep­re­sented in London was in­ter­est­ing. Mar­shall Hall got his first se­nior in­ter­na­tional trip in the dis­cus; Joseph Miller earned his place in the sprints; Ju­lia Ratcliffe, a Com­mon­wealth Games ham­mer throw­ing medal­list in Glas­gow three years ago was there. Path­ways are open­ing.

Pro­file i s key, but there’s a dou­ble edge to this. Where Walsh and McCart­ney are hugely pre­sentable fig­ures, and out­go­ing with the young fans, there is a bal­ance to be found.

“Th­ese guys have that sense of re­spon­si­bil­ity that this sport has given them an in­cred­i­ble op­por­tu­nity, and there’s a sense they need to give back to the sport,” New­man said.

“I know Nick Wil­lis is like that, too. When they can give back they will, but there is a lim­i­ta­tion to that.

“They have their own train­ing and com­pe­ti­tion sched­ules and also their own com­mer­cial re­spon­si­bil­i­ties as well. The ac­cess to them in some ways is what their value is. I guess that’s what they’re sell­ing to their com­mer­cial spon­sors.”

The pro­file of New Zealand’s best ath­letes de­pends to a large de­gree on their suc­cess. That means a tough train­ing regime. That takes time. It is a sim­ple equa­tion.

They also only have a cer­tain sized win­dow to max­imise their earn­ing, and ath­letic po­ten­tial.

“Tom and El­iza don’t get a base salary. They get a HPSNZ grant. It’s a trade­off be­tween ‘ how much of this time can I spend driv­ing the com­mer­cial side, be­cause that’s the only way to make some money, and how much do I give back to the sport’,” New­man said.

“Take El­iza. If it works for her to make an ap­pear­ance and it’s not too oner­ous she’ll do it. It’s al­most her first pri­or­ity when­ever pos­si­ble. The prob­lem is it’s not al­ways pos­si­ble.”

Seat­ter, a for­mer Com­mon­wealth Games walker, chief se­lec­tor for five years and long steeped in all as­pects of ath­let­ics, main­tains their first pri­or­ity has to be their own per­for­mance.

“They’re a re­ally good group, whose ap­peal goes be­yond their tech­ni­cal or spe­cial­ist knowl­edge. They have a lot of cred­i­bil­ity be­cause of who they are and how they op­er­ate.”

Seat­ter was also chief ex­ec­u­tive of New Zealand Foot­ball for sev­eral years in the mid- 2000s. There is a sig­nif­i­cant dif­fer­ence be­tween team and in­di­vid­ual sports’ ath­letes.

“The Rugby Union con­trol the All Blacks be­cause it’s their team and they put them on the park. The All Whites, the same thing. The Rugby Union em­ploy the play­ers so they can de­cide the pri­or­ity of the play­ers.

“Tom Walsh won the Di­a­mond League last year and he doesn’t ever wear a New Zealand sin­glet be­cause it’s all cov­ered by spon­sors.

“Va­lerie has con­tracts with sup­pli­ers in her own right. They prob­a­bly get more money from spon­sors than Ath­let­ics NZ gets from hav­ing a whole team turn­ing out wear­ing what­ever they wear. You don’t con­trol th­ese peo­ple. They com­pete as in­di­vid­u­als.”

Seat­ter and New­man both have high re­gard for the work of 57- year- old Good­man, the for­mer Tas­ma­nian teacher who has been in the role since 2011, hav­ing come from Aus­tralia’s In­sti­tute of Sport and Par­a­lympic pro­gramme.

“I hope the high per­for­mance suc­cess at least proves we do have a sys­tem in place and that’s where ath­let­ics is go­ing well,” New­man said. “That con­veyer belt is there and pro­vided the tal­ent is in the sport it has the best op­por­tu­nity it’s ever had to com­pete on a world stage and suc­ceed, no doubt about that.”

Added Seat­ter: “There wasn’t the spread across a range of events quite the way there i s now, and not the youth­ful­ness of the crop we’ve got now. There wasn’t the crit­i­cal mass as a group.”

Both be­lieve there’s lit­tle they would change to the pro­cesses Good­man is over­see­ing. So what about the boss him­self?

“You can’t al­ways guar­an­tee medals, but if you have a group of eight to 10 ath­letes ca­pa­ble of top eight I think we’re in a sound place.

“In 2008, we had t wo ath­letes [ Adams and Wil­lis] ca­pa­ble of top eight.

“The foun­da­tion has changed. Now we’ve got a num­ber of young ath­letes I think will do very well at the world ju­niors next year, and will be in the team at Tokyo [ 2020 Olympics] so it’s very ex­cit­ing.”

Ath­let­ics is as well placed as it has ever been to make sub­stan­tial strides in the years to come.

On­wards and up­wards then.

That con­veyer belt is there and pro­vided the tal­ent is in the sport it has the best op­por­tu­nity it’s ever had to com­pete on a world stage and suc­ceed, no doubt about that. Scott New­man

Pic­tures / Getty Im­ages and AP

Tom Walsh and El­iza McCart­ney are set­ting a high stan­dard for Kiwi ath­letes.

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