Canoeing: Three threaten coup against CRNZ board

By Paul Lewis

Alan Thompson. Photo / Supplied
Alan Thompson. Photo / Supplied

The former glory sport of canoeing has drawn up bitter battle lines with a potential breakaway group of Olympic gold medallists and coaches - Ian Ferguson, Paul MacDonald and Alan Thompson - threatening a boardroom coup against Canoe Racing New Zealand.

Thompson resigned from the board of CRNZ yesterday - before, he says, he would have been asked to - but he and fellow Olympians Ferguson and MacDonald may try and overturn the board.

Thompson's move comes after he, Ferguson and MacDonald said they were being forced out of the sport - and criticised CRNZ and Sparc for a culture of secrecy, power struggles and manipulation in last weekend's Herald on Sunday.

The high-profile Olympians say they and another coach Andras Szabo are on one side; and CRNZ CEO Paula Kearns, high performance manager Wayne Maher, new coach Gordon Walker and Sparc on the other.

Now Thompson says he was disgusted to find that Maher - mentioned by all three as assuming power in the sport and helping to oust canoeing's "old guard" - is petitioning canoeing athletes to come up with reasons why they do not want to be coached by Ferguson and MacDonald.

In an email from Maher to kayaker Troy Burbidge, Maher says: "... if you get around the athletes asap to get written confirmation of what was said at Paula's, that is important if we are to get this over the line.

"Can you please write something to the effect of:

* Why you no longer want to be coached by Ian and/or Paul and/or Andras - reasons etc.

* What you are prepared to work with in the short-term - e.g. We are in behind the HP [high performance programme] and all we need is a programme and IPPs [individual performance programmes] etc while international coaches are recruited.

* In the long-term, international coaches will give us ... [a blank space left for the athletes to fill in]

* Plus anything else you think - maybe send it around as a chain letter and get everyone to contribute their bit?

"Please give me a call if you need to discuss it further - it needs to be in Paula's email by no later than 5pm today."

Another email, this time from kayaker Scott Bicknell, has been sent to fellow canoeists Mike Walker, Erin Taylor, Lisa Carrington, and Teneale Hatton. It says Maher asked Bicknell to write "something formal" and calls for "a small snippet" from each athlete "of what you think about Ian, Macca and/or Andrew [Szabo] being removed."

Thompson, once he discovered the email, sent a copy to CRNZ deputy chairman Daniel Gerrard, son of former Games chef de mission Dave Gerrard, saying: "... this is not the way to forward the sport in a number of ways, firstly the chequebook or who pays the piper.

"It is not fair on the athletes and because of the content of Wayne's email, it shows that CRNZ is trying to put words into their mouths and therefore everything that is said is irrelevant, this is how fascism and communism operated."

To the Herald on Sunday, Thompson said Maher's appeal for support showed only that CRNZ was trying to force athletes into line by waving the threat of funds at them.

"We [Ferguson, MacDonald and himself] have not tried to involve the athletes in this. It isn't fair. This has been between us and CRNZ and Sparc - and by involving the athletes, they are just showing the political games they have been playing.

"By threatening the athletes with funding, they are also making redundant anything the athletes say - because they are being coerced."

Thompson said the coaches could try to force a special general meeting to have the current board voted out. That could be done through the sport's member clubs. He said they had not ruled out a legal challenge to CRNZ and could foresee a split in canoeing's ranks.

"If the current board goes out, I would say the CEO and the high performance manager would then be in an untenable situation.

"I could see a 50-50 situation," he said, when asked if some athletes would side with them while some stayed with the status quo.

"I think that could happen and we are prepared for that. We have talked about the possibility of funding independently a campaign to Europe, with private funding. It would have to be a lean, mean machine but I think we could do it."

While two governing bodies in a sport as small as canoeing seems unlikely long-term, there is no doubt it could happen in the short-term with the pulling power of the medallists. Any objective assessment would likely conclude that the coaches, CRNZ and Sparc would eventually sort matters out - but there is also no doubt battle lines have been clearly drawn.

Thompson said their proposed solution was rejected; another reason for his resignation from the board. He asked that all appointments to CRNZ be conducted by an independent panel; that all reviews similarly be done by independents; and that a clear selection policy be agreed on and made transparent. They also asked for the appointment of a high performance committee, comprised of experienced canoeing personnel.

"But it was all rejected," said Thompson. "You can see now that they want us out and they want international coaches in who are under their control.

"This isn't about looking after the sport. It's about people looking after their jobs and it is a shame they are doing that by using the athletes."

* The Herald on Sunday has offered the Minister of Sport, Murray McCully, a right of reply to last week's articles.

- Herald on Sunday

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