Sea change in funding offers hope to battlers

EYES ON THE PRIZES: Alex Baumann is taking an enlightened approach to  competing claims on funding.
EYES ON THE PRIZES: Alex Baumann is taking an enlightened approach to competing claims on funding.

New Zealand sport's changing face has been recognised by the Crown's high performance boss Alex Baumann. Simon Plumb talks to the man trying to broaden the nation's sporting horizon.

Ambitious Olympic medal targets headlined the release of High Performance Sport New Zealand's 2013-2020 strategic plan this week.

But beneath the numbers, an important philosophical shift was to be found within the 12-page document.

For the first time, the Crown is to offer non-Olympic sports significant access to public funding.

In other words, the playing field just got a whole lot more level.

Two years ago Gisborne teenager Sarah Mason, then just 15, sent shockwaves around the surfing world when, as a wildcard entry, she convincingly beat the reigning world champion Stephanie Gilmore in a fully-fledged world championship event.

These days her budding career is in limbo, her family unable to fund her attempt to qualify for the elite top professional circuit, aka the "Dream Tour", which features just one Kiwi, Taranaki's Paige Hareb.

Mason has no coach, no sponsor, has had almost no government support, but she has a lot of talent in a sport that involves an estimated one million females around the globe.

Hareb is the poster-girl of New Zealand surfing, and has been ranked within the Dream Tour's top 10 for three of the past four years. But things aren't any better for her.

Even though Hareb is on the world circuit she has no major sponsor, can't afford a coach, and has to pay all her own airfares, accommodation and freight costs while receiving almost nothing in government support.

To help meet her expenses last year, Hareb fought in the Fight For Life boxing promotion. This year she has had to beg the public for $30,000 in funding which meets only some of her annual costs.

The irony is that if tomorrow morning the International Olympic Committee added surfing to its Summer Games programme, the door to a piece of more than $60 million in high-performance sport funding would instantly open to Mason and Hareb.

New Zealand has a plethora of world-class potential in sports outside the IOC's catalogue.

Examples include freestyle skier and double X Games silver medallist Jossi Wells, motocross star Levi Sherwood (who is on the brink of a world title), rally driver Hayden Paddon (closing in on a deal in the World Rally Championship) and Mitch Evans who has been lucky enough to be taken under the wing of Australian Formula 1 star Mark Webber.

The Crown, under previous entity Sparc (now Sport New Zealand), has been reluctant to financially acknowledge them, electing instead to focus almost exclusively on Olympic rewards.

But Alex Baumann, the man at the helm of the new elite arm, High Performance Sport New Zealand, is leading the way for a more embracing philosophy.

“Netball, for example, is not an Olympic sport, but we're doing very well on the world stage. That kind of impact is absolutely critical,” Baumann told the Sunday Star-Times.

“There are discussions with motorsport but it's a challenging one. There's a few others as well, we'll have to take a look at cricket and the Paralympic side has done quite well.

“I do think there's potential on the winter [Olympic] side too with new sports coming in.

“We need to support and invest in all these areas, so, we no longer have contestable sports, it's now a case of applying for targeted or campaign-based funding.

“There was some emphasis on non-Olympic sports before, but we need to look at sports which we could do well at with limited investment."

Baumann believed that most investment would still go into Olympic sport. But the balance was between continuing to target priority sports against also taking some calculated risks.

“There needs to be some investigation done as to what those might be.”

The biggest problem facing Baumann is money. Having a strategic plan is all well and good, but he admits the execution will fall short unless the government continues to increase the availability of public resources.

“It will not be possible to achieve the goals we have set out unless funding is increased, even to maintain the current system we know it's going to cost more,” he said.

"We're quite comfortable that if we follow the strategic plan and get more investment, we can achieve our targets, including 16-plus medals at the 2020 Olympics.”

Luckily, the early signs from sport's two most important Members of Parliament - Prime Minister John Key and Minister of Sport Murray McCully - bode well, following New Zealand's best Olympic medal haul in 24 years.

“Both Mr McCully and the Prime Minister are very supportive, but we have to produce the goods as well,” Baumann said. “We have to be performance-based. If we don't do well, the likelihood of getting increased investment certainly lessens.

“Political will is a key factor to success and I see what's happened here in the last four or five years in facility development and increased resources for high-performance sport as very positive."

Baumann also noted the increasing importance of sporting philanthropists such as Owen Glenn and Stephen Tindall.

But even then, if, or when, more money is secured, how should it be distributed and, crucially, accounted for?

Baumann acknowledges some national sport organisations (NSOs) might not be up to the job and for athletes to be helped, HPSNZ needs to be prepared to “wrap a bubble around them”.

“If it's a non-Olympic, campaign-based sport again we would probably go through the NSO. But, and this might be controversial, if we believe the NSO doesn't have the capability to handle the situation effectively, then we should create a bubble and support athletes that way,” he said.

“The philosophy is athlete-focussed, and if something's getting in the way, we must have that kind of flexibility in the system.”

Sports administration often appear synonymous with politicking and bureaucracy, but Baumann seems to be taking a more pragmatic, open-minded approach.

He has experienced Olympic glory through the eyes of an athlete (having won two swimming gold medals for Canada in 1984), and worked in sporting governance in other parts of the globe - a blend of experience leading him to question the location of New Zealand's goalposts.

Now he looks set to start moving them.

Sunday Star Times