Higher expectations for NZ at Winter Olympics

At first glance, Sochi doesn't look like a city only a year out from hosting a Winter Olympics.

Towering cranes dot the skyline, roads to venues remain unfinished and piles of rubble are apparent throughout the Russian resort town.

Regular electric blackouts plunge the city into darkness and there are reports of construction workers being exploited.

Costs are spiralling out of control. The Games are expected to cost more than NZ$61 billion - nearly three times the original budget. By comparison the London Olympics cost about NZ$17b.

Mismanagement seems rife, and Russian president Vladimir Putin sacked the vice-president of the nation's Olympic Committee after discovering that construction of a ski jump was behind schedule.

Yet the Games are coming, and around 20 Kiwis will be there, competing in what the New Zealand Olympic Committee hopes will be its best Winter Games yet.

Snow Sports New Zealand performance director Ashley Light was part of the NZOC contingent in Sochi over the past week checking the preparations.

Despite the media reports circulating the globe, he's confident that come next February, Sochi will shine on the global stage.

"I have no concerns whatsoever that the field of play, and the venues, are going to be absolutely incredible," said from Sochi.

"Most of them are already finished. Most of the venues, apart from the ski jumping venue, have had test events already, so they are operational and functioning."

New Zealand doesn't have a flash record at the Winter Olympics. Skier Annelise Coberger claimed our first and only medal in 1992, a silver in the women's slalom at Albertville in Canada.

The majority of campaigns since have featured underwhelming performances from Kiwi athletes who, despite having potential, lack the financial support to compete with the cash-rich European and North American winter giants. The aim is to change that, using Sochi as a springboard to turn New Zealand into a more competitive winter-sports nation.

Sport New Zealand will give $1.7 million to the country's top winter athletes over the next year, and the majority of that will go to our best medal hopes, such as skiers Jossi and Byron Wells, skeleton athlete Ben Sandford, snowboarder Shelly Gotlieb and speed skater Shane Dobbin.

In recent years the NZOC has also tightened the qualification criteria, meaning our athletes are more competitive and not just making up the numbers.

A podium finish, the target from Sport New Zealand, is achievable from the team of between 15 and 20 who will head to Sochi, Light said. The Wells brothers, in ski slopestyle and half-pipe, loom as our best bets.

"That's all part of the long-term strategic plan to raise the game for winter," Light said. "Instead of New Zealanders turning up to just have a go, it's about trying to get parity with summer as far as our performances go.

"The bar has raised - and that's a good thing. Our athletes understand that and they know what they've got to do."

Winter sports have received consistent state funding in New Zealand only since 2007. They are expensive to pursue professionally, and specialised training usually requires the likes of pricey ski resorts such as Breckenridge, Mt Hood and Whistler in North America, and St Moritz in France. Given the nature of the sports themselves, injuries are frequent - Taupo skier Rose Battersby, a hopeful for inclusion in the 2014 team, broke her back competing in the recent Winter X-Games in Aspen, Colorado.

Light said New Zealand's goals are still modest at this stage, but the foundation for future success can be laid in Sochi.

"There is a line in the sand, and we're not here to play marbles. We are here to get results - that's what the athletes expect. That's what the coaches expect, and what the investors from High Performance Sport New Zealand expect.

"The plan is we go to Sochi and we bring home the stated goal. We need to show we have the credibility, and talent, to go forward from here."

Sunday Star Times