The Olympic Journey

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So how was that? Two weeks of nail-biting, exhilarating, heartbreaking spectating of the performance excellence and mental tenacity which is the Olympic Games. 

The diversity personified at the Olympics means that dreams are broken and shattered all at the same time and often by people who aren’t familiar to the global audience.

However for all the media driven hype that implies champions have come from nowhere, those at the centre of athletic performance know there is no such thing as coming from nowhere or overnight success.

At the risk of being a killjoy, research shows that nearly all podium finishers in the Olympics are 85 percent of the way to that medal before they get to the Games.

They have been or are current World Champions, World Cup medallists, record holders or at the least finalists, before they even get their accreditation and most have been in their sport for more than 10 years.

Perhaps the stand out performance of the Games, and a testament to her perseverance, is Luuka Jones in the Canoe Slalom who won silver but hadn’t featured on a podium before Rio.

The common saying is that success breeds success. One only has to live in Cambridge for any length of time to feel the strength that comes with being surrounded by Olympic performers and the osmotic effect that has on other athletes, which is arguably why the centralised programmes of cycling and rowing bear fruit.

In revelling in the success of Kiwis at the Olympics, praise must first be heaped upon them for their absolute dedication, focus and perseverance through adversity, as there will not be a single athlete who hasn’t had to come back from injury, illness or a loss in their career.

If any Kiwi finished at the least with a personal best at the Olympic Games, that is a massive achievement.

Timing is everything in sport and to get everything right on the day is unbelievably hard to do.

As we all know, New Zealand appears to punch above its weight when it comes to sporting success and arguments abound whether that is a performance culture (helped by centralised programmes), Kiwi tenacity and toughness, or simply specific and targeted funding towards the sports we do well at.

Common perception is that money wins medals, and in the most blatant example of this, Great Britain could only manage 36 on the medal table in Atlanta in 1996 before they steered National Lottery funding into High Performance sport.

They are now one of the most successful sporting nations in the world, investing £350 million every four years, meaning each medal costs them about 5.5 million.

Arguably High Performance Sport New Zealand will never enjoy the same level of funding, so claims it has to be smarter with its strategic investment to deliver outcomes that satisfy the nation. Spend five minutes listening to sports talkback and you’ll discover that satisfaction lies solely in the medal count.

Which unfairly ignores how hard it is to even qualify for the Olympic Games let alone make the top half of the global field.

As statistics build that New Zealand is fast becoming a lazy nation, it seems ironic that a lot of people sit on their couch yelling at athletes to try harder.

The practice of investing in the sports New Zealand excels at (e.g. rowing, cycling, sailing, and equestrian) in order to inspire youth into sport attracts its share of criticism.

The critics point out that these sports in particular are not exactly a cost effective option for most New Zealand families.

Research validates seeing is believing and that watching a Kiwi excel on the international stage can measurably inspire others to believe they can emulate those feats and want to have a go at the sport themselves. Herein lies the problem.

The average rowing fees at a high school are well over $1000 a year. A track bike can cost up to $7000. Keeping a horse requires not only food and land but equine medical bills. And a yacht or a set of golf clubs doesn’t come cheap either.

The chicken-egg argument implies funding should go in to the athletes at the early stages to give them a hand up, however with limited funding, the business arguments must come in to play of investing only in measurably profitable outcomes (still bearing in mind the unpredictable nature of sport).

At an Olympics where New Zealand had its biggest team and a commendable number of fourth placings, it is valid to question that if efforts were targeted at sports more accessible to the average Kiwi, would there be even more success?  Are we ignoring the pyramid model of greater numbers at the bottom/entry level meaning a greater probability of turning out high achievers at the top?

The efforts of organisations like the Waterboy project in New Zealand admirably aims to create opportunities for kids to have a go at sport, yet still comes up against financial obstacles and a lack of top notch coaching for the motivated kids.

So should our sporting success as a nation be measured by the number of Olympic medals, or the number of competitors performing with distinction, or simply the number of Kiwis doing regular competitive sport?

With diabetes on the rise and inactivity being a huge contributing factor, is it more profitable in all respects to inspire people into sports with a less expensive entry level cost, therefore increasing participation and the health markers of the nation, and just perhaps popping some Olympic champions out the top?

Or is everyone rightly chuffed that the rowers, cyclists and sailors are the beacons for New Zealand?

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