Strict rules needed to protect NZ sport stars

SIMON PLUMB
Last updated 05:00 17/02/2013

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Growing concerns over how many underqualified sport scientists are working with top New Zealand athletes have sparked a call to reinstate a mandatory accreditation system ditched three years ago.

The call comes as a former police prosecutor warns there is also a clear risk of Kiwi sport being linked to corruption.

The Government could help protect New Zealand sport from doping if it reinstated accreditation for sport scientists, says the chairwoman of Sport and Exercise Science New Zealand (SESNZ).

Dr Sally Lark says she would like to see her non-profit organisation handed back the authority to demand scientists working with elite Kiwi athletes carry accreditation to help ensure high standards.

The Australian Crime Commission's controversial year-long investigation into sport across the Tasman has raised the issue of professional athletes dealing with supposedly underqualified sports "gurus" and practitioners.

Like Great Britain does currently, Lark says New Zealand used to enforce strict rules around sport scientists' qualifications and had that not been scrapped a few years ago, New Zealand would largely be able to clear itself from the doping cloud blowing over from Australia - and relieve Sport Minister Murray McCully from needing to consider a probe of his own into doping and organised crime in sport.

Lark said she would be "not confident at all" in unaccredited sport scientists working with top athletes and through SESNZ is encountering "a lot of people with a little bit of knowledge who don't have the background to make informed decisions for their athletes".

"It [SESNZ] was the organisation Government channelled money through for sporting bodies. This was pre-Sparc [now Sport New Zealand], pre-Hillary Commission," Lark said.

"When Sparc and the New Zealand Academy of Sport were formed, those organisations took over. In light of that, the fundamental business of SESNZ changed.

It aligned itself more with what Exercise and Sport Science Australia and the British Association of Sport and Exercise do.

"We research all things from sport to exercise, recreational and clinical. We have accreditations in all the disciplines of sport science.

"When the New Zealand Academy of Sport was set up the agreement with them was that the practitioners would attain a certain standard and reach an accreditation level which is on par with international levels.

"But, for some reason the Academy of Sport decided ‘no, we'll just get our professionals from overseas', so they didn't adhere to any national standard of competency.

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"We're still trying to get that reinstated. The British are far more advanced, they need to be accredited. They won't just let anybody who doesn't have the credentials work with their athletes."

The Kiwi agreement ceased prior to Lark becoming SESNZ chair in 2009 and she says discussions on the issue are ongoing with High Performance Sport New Zealand (which replaced the Academy of Sport in 2001) chief executive Alex Baumann.

Had the arrangement not been changed, Lark says New Zealand's system would be under much tighter control.

"When working with elite athletes, a little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing," Lark said.

"If there were accredited sport nutritionists giving advice, they wouldn't be having these problems in Australia and we wouldn't be under this cloud of suspicion in New Zealand either.

"This is what accreditation was set up for so that appropriate people were advising athletes. What we've got at the moment are people from all sorts of backgrounds who may or may not be properly qualified."

Last week the head of the World Anti-Doping Agency David Howman told the Star-Times he believes a full probe should be launched into doping and organised crime in New Zealand sport.

Little has been discussed around the organised crime element in this country. But now a former detective sergeant and police prosecutor, with extensive experience investigating the gaming industry, says there is clear risk of Kiwi sport being linked to corruption - adding to pressure for the Government to emulate the Australian inquiry.

Gaming industry whistleblower Martin Legge also says he doubts who here would be capable of such an investigation.

"I don't think it [sport] is completely fine and there's nothing to worry about," Legge said.

"Most sporting groups will do what they have to do get money into their coffers. My experience is that they will participate in unlawful activity in relation to gambling to achieve those aims.

"If there was a problem with corruption within our betting system then I wouldn't be too confident New Zealand has the sort of people to ensure it's run with a hard line."

Last week McCully charged Sport NZ, High Performance Sport NZ and Drug Free Sport NZ with evaluating the need for a national doping probe.

- Sunday Star Times

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