Can Chch become NZ's sporting capital?

Could this be Canterbury's future?

TONY SMITH
Last updated 05:00 14/12/2013
John Wylie
JOHN KIRK-ANDERSON/Fairfax NZ

John Wylie: "It's almost appalling that we don't have better facilities [in Canterbury]."

eton dorney
A GLIMPSE OF THE FUTURE?: London's Dorney Lake during the 2012 Olympics.

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When Canterbury rowing chief John Wylie looked out over London's Dorney Lake, he got a glimpse of what Christchurch could have had - and could yet get.

The much-lauded Olympic watersport venue near Windsor in the bucolic Berkshire countryside was modelled on a plan devised a decade ago for Lake Isaac, a purpose-built flat-water sports venue proposed for the Harewood-McLeans Island area.

Lake Isaac was scuppered after Christchurch International Airport objected to the potential risk of bird strikes. But Wylie passed its plans to FISA, international rowing's governing body. The plans were snapped up for the Dorney Lake development, hailed by many as the best of the 2012 London Olympic venues.

But Wylie and other water sports advocates hope Christchurch could get its own aquatic amphitheatre designed along Dorney Lake lines.

They have enthusiastically applauded Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee's latent conversion to the cause.

Brownlee said this month he wanted to use the vacant residential red zone to make Christchurch the "sporting capital" of New Zealand.

The centrepiece would be a water course "unique in the southern hemisphere", a facility that could both solve the area's flooding problem and serve as a venue for sports such as rowing, kayaking, triathlon and open-water swimming.

New Christchurch Mayor Lianne Dalziel also sounds enthusiastic. Speaking to the South Island Property Council forum this week, the former Christchurch East MP said the city was "of course more than capable of being the sporting capital New Zealand; some would say we are already".

"But what about thinking of the water table in the east and the use of an introduced watercourse as a mechanism for dealing with these issues?"

Brownlee's support is music to Wylie's ears. The 73-year-old Canterbury Rowing general manager has devoted 58 years to rowing and remains dedicated to seeing a flat-water sports venue established in Canterbury.

Wylie wasn't aware of Brownlee's interest until the minister's comments were published in The Press, but they certainly piqued his interest.

He said creating a lake in the eastern suburbs to serve as a "drainage solution for Christchurch and a multisport hub" would be "a win-win situation".

A 2.5-kilometre-long, 10-lane lake could be used for water sporting events up to world championship standard. But, equally importantly, it would also be a training facility and a recreational amenity.

He has identified "three alignments, within the red zone, that would give us just under 2.5km", but he won't name the locations because the sporting codes "are piggybacking on what needs to be done as a drainage scheme".

Wylie said the alignments should suit the prevailing wind, which "actually runs from north to northeast in the morning and gradually swings around".

The water course would need to be "just under 200m wide" to accommodate 10 lanes, each 13.5m wide. It should be 4m deep and ideally, like Dorney Lake, have a 30m-wide return lane so crews could comfortably pass each other.

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Wylie stressed rowing wouldn't be the only beneficiary. Other water sports would also be catered for and there could be tracks for walkers, joggers and rollerbladers.

Codes could share amenity buildings because the days of "stand-alone facilities are gone".

Wylie said there was "a lot of emotion about anything that affects the river and water".

"But we've got to stop pretending that the main drain [the Avon River] is a premier sports venue. We've got to build something that suits its purpose and we need to piggyback on a wider community benefit."

He points to the success of Lake Hood, the artificial recreational and sporting lake created near Ashburton, in conjunction with housing developments. Lake Hood was being doubled in size and would be eventually equal in size to "Hagley Park, underwater".

Penrith Lakes - venue for the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games rowing regatta where New Zealand single sculler Rob Waddell won a gold medal - served as a "stormwater runoff" for the Blue Mountains catchment and had "opened up the area for development". It's also used as an open-water swimming venue.

"This would do the same thing for Christchurch," Wylie said.

Christchurch-based Canoe Racing New Zealand high performance manager Grant Restall sees similar potential.

He went to a world championship at Lake Juran, a 2250m-long facility in Zagreb, Croatia, which was surrounded by restaurants and cafes in a "quite inspirational" development, 2km from the CBD. "It was a focal point for the city."

Lake Juran is used for rowing, kayaking and open-water swimming competitions, but also recreational aquatic activities. Football, basketball, beach volleyball, softball, mini-golf and mountain biking are options in the precincts, and children's playgrounds.

Wylie agreed with the multisport focus. "The back of a boat shed would make a pretty good squash court".

Swimming New Zealand's open-water swimming high performance manager Philip Rush says a "multipurpose" flat-water venue in Christchurch would be a potentially attractive proposition for his sport, which uses Lake Taupo for its national championships.

Olympic-style 10km open-water swimming events are increasingly being held in a controlled environment like a purpose-built lake, rather than in wild venues, such as the ocean. The 2012 Olympic race was held in The Serpentine Lake in London's Hyde Park and the next world championships will be on a rowing course in Kazan, Russia.

Rush said the development proposed by Brownlee would be "an asset to Christchurch, although [Swimming New Zealand] would say obviously a swimming pool [to replace QE II] would be fantastic first".

So why should water sports get their way and what about the cost?

Wylie says there is a glaring need for a safe and accessible place to train and compete. The Avon is "too congested". Its banks have narrowed "two to three metres either side, and in some places even more."

Rowing's traditional Kerr's Reach venue was "a three-lane course, but it has narrowed since the quakes and now it's a two-lane course". "We can't take any more rowers on now, we literally can't put any more on the river.

"Since the closure of the Avondale Bridge, there's no water access below Kerr's Reach. We have 500 schools rowers on Wednesday afternoons and we used to have to fit them into 5km of river. Now it's barely 1.5km; it's getting more dangerous."

Crews were training on the Waimakariri River but Wylie said that wasn't ideal, especially for school-age rowers because it's "a big, wild river".

"We took the bottom out of a new four [boat] three weeks ago. Where there was deep water last time they went out, there was a shingle bank. It left a 5m gash [in the boat's hull]."

Restall said kayakers were also finding the Avon River more congested.

Wylie said the scuppering of Lake Isaac had set sports such as rowing back years, resulting in an exodus of elite Canterbury rowers, like James Lash - a member of the New Zealand lightweight four that won two World Cup titles this year and were "pipped at the post in the world champs" - to train and compete at Lake Karapiro, near Cambridge in the Waikato.

"If you regard rowing as one of the more successful national sports, which we are, it's almost appalling that we don't have better facilities [in Canterbury]," Wylie said.

But, rowing already has two elite venues at Karapiro and Lake Ruataniwha, near Twizel, 3 1/2 hours drive from Christchurch? Does it, in all conscience, need another?

Wylie agreed there would be an impact on Ruataniwha in terms of Canterbury rowers training there. But accommodation facilities at Karapiro were already stretched, with more than 100 rowers training there last winter.

"If we had [a flat-water] facility here, I believe we could almost see Rowing New Zealand peel off some of the junior and under-23 development programmes to Christchurch. As a sport, we are big enough and have enough growth to be able to work from more than one location."

Besides, Wylie believed there could be an economic spinoff for the city. Major world championships might come to New Zealand only once every 25 years, but a world masters rowing regatta would bring "3000 overseas visitors to wine, dine and stay in Christchurch for a fortnight".

"A lot of other sporting events would gravitate to it."

Canoe Racing New Zealand chief executive Mark Weatherall said while his sport would be unlikely to attract a world championship, having a specialist flat-water venue would be a significant boost in terms of potentially hosting events but also for training purposes.

Wylie said excavation costs could be recouped. Lake Hood cost $7 a cubic metre to dig out, mainly because of the cost of diesel.

"Our guestimate is it could be done in Christchurch for $10 per cubic metre now, with the change in diesel price. There'd be four million cubic metres of spill, that's $40m if you're paying for it. But Christchurch is going to need a helluva lot of soil for top dressing new subdivisions. We've already had at least a couple of our major Canterbury contractors approach us and say they would dig [the lake] for nothing if they could get the fill . . there's an economic value to the spill."

Wylie, who when he was awarded the New Zealand Order of Merit three years ago said he wouldn't retire till he saw a flat-water facility become a reality, said it had be built.

But he warned, "the world is full of 1.8km [rowing] courses that have been abandoned".

Lake Burley Griffin in Canberra was a classic case. "It was meant to be a longer course but it was reduced because it would have meant taking a bit of the Governor-General's front lawn. So it became a 1.8km course.

Canberra could have had one of the most beautiful courses in the world, but no-one goes there now because it's not long enough. If we are going to do it, do it properly."

Wylie hoped Sport Canterbury would step in and advocate for potential venue users in discussions with the city council and the Government.

The regional sports trust is looking at the issue but chief executive Julyan Falloon wanted to talk to the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority and organisations like the Avon Corridor support group and "do due diligence" before making substantive public comment.

Brownlee has loosened the floodgate stops with his pronouncement, but there's a lot of water to flow under this particular bridge yet.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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