Prospective winners get backing, losers broke

PHIL GIFFORD
Last updated 05:00 23/12/2012

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OPINION: Money doesn't talk, it swears, says Bob Dylan. In New Zealand sport it has usually made people grovel.

As High Performance Sport New Zealand (HPSNZ) announces nearly $31 million in grants for 2013, with commitments for millions more, the changes in financial backing for sports people during the lifetime of our Olympic greats like Murray Halberg have been extraordinary.

In his lead-up to the 1960 Olympics in Rome, the best Halberg or Peter Snell was allowed to win without being banned was a prize to the value of $25, and then only if it could be engraved. Cash was forbidden.

By the 1980s shamamateurism was at its height in track and field; the under-the-table payments came with a fishhook in the form of our Inland Revenue Department. One of the great runners of the era still shudders when recalling an IRD investigation which largely consisted of an inspector asking a question and responding to the reply with: "Don't lie to me, you prick."

Our first attempts to make fair and reasonable payments to athletes came in 1979, with the New Zealand Sports Foundation, funded by corporate donations, lottery grants and, I swear this is true, a Maori figurine series of Jim Beam bottles that produced a third of the budget in 1982.

The foundation was hugely embarrassed in 1992 to discover why not all competitors were getting their grants. Their money was being stolen by the chief executive, former political journalist Keith Hancox.

Now the money all comes from the government and the distribution process is transparent, which has the bonus of excluding shifty operators like Hancox. On the other hand full publication of grants inevitably cranks up levels of envy.

If you're in men's softball, for example, you couldn't help but look through a green-eyed haze at female boxer Alexis Pritchard, who next year gets a $90,000 grant to fund her campaign to compete at the Olympics in Rio in 2016, after making the last eight in her division at the Games in London.

At the last softball world championships, in Canada in 2009, New Zealand finished second. Softball, for 17 players, gets $230,000 to fund their world championship team next year, which comes to $13,529 a man.

And any sport would drool at the $1.2 million promised to the New Zealand rugby sevens team for every year through to Rio.

Here's where the discussion over funding becomes divisive, not on a personal level, but on the most basic of philosophical grounds.

The core aim of HPSNZ is simple - to win gold medals and world titles. Not to fund community sport, nor to encourage participation at every level, but to win at the highest level.

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The rugby sevens side has every chance of winning gold in Rio. Given the chance to compete at the Commonwealth Games, they've three sevens titles out of three. If gold is what you're after they're an outfit you'd want your money on.

Criticism over millions going to the biggest money sport in the country has drawn condemnation from the talkback crowd, a lot of it on the lines of why the rugby fat cats should get any fatter.

The real issue is where you want HPSNZ to place your tax dollar in sport.

Was the euphoria that followed our successes in London worth the spend? If, like me, your answer to that question is "yes", I'm picking you'll believe the money paving the way to Rio is a good investment too.

Footnote: Having watched, written and talked my way through last year's Rugby World Cup, I didn't rush to see the Sky documentary, The Weight of a Nation.

What could Kevin Cameron, Gareth Thorne, Tony Johnson and the team involved show that we hadn't lived through at the time? As it turns out, plenty.

Time gives people the chance to develop some perspective, and with perspective guards are dropped. We discover Graham Henry and Steve Hansen have an emotional side press conferences at the time never revealed.

- Sunday Star Times

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