Mallard discusses his role in NZ's sporting successes

By Audrey Young

Trevor Mallard would like to take credit for New Zealand's spectacular sporting success last year but he says in all honesty he can't.

"While I would like to take a lot of credit for the individual investment decisions, they are not mine. It is done at arm's length and I think that's important."

But he does take credit for having overseen in the past six years a more streamlined funding system involving just one agency, Sport and Recreation New Zealand, and an increase in taxpayer funding from about $2 million a year to some $50 million. Lottery funding has remained at about $30 million a year.

Money was "never the total answer" to sporting success, Mr Mallard told the Herald. But it had definitely made a contribution in some sports.

"Some people have told me that their decisions to carry on have been based on the fact that the amount of support they have got has been improved.

"Rowing is a classic case. Some of the best rowers are in their 30s and it's quite a big pull to keep on training when people have a whole pile of career and family choices."

Mr Mallard rates the rowing feat in Japan in September as the second-best performance in a "bumper year" for New Zealand in sports.

Within 45 minutes four world titles had been claimed: Caroline and Georgina Evers-Swindell took the women's double sculls, Juliette Haigh and Nicky Coles the women's pair, George Bridgewater and Nathan Twaddle the men's pair and Mahe Drysdale the single sculls.

Also rated in Mr Mallard's top five are the Kiwis for their victory over England and Australia in rugby league's tri-nations, an achievement which controversially failed to get the team included as finalists for the Halberg Awards.

Despite the glamorous year for New Zealand sport at the elite level, Mr Mallard says efforts to get New Zealanders more active have been more important, most notably the Push-Play campaign to encourage 30 minutes' physical activity for five days a week.

Ordinary New Zealanders already out-rated Australia for numbers of people involved in organised activities - and to older ages.

"If you spend a little bit of time over there you do notice that they look a bit more like Americans than we do. They are just bigger," Mr Mallard said.

New Zealand men aged 50 to 65 had the most marked difference: 63.2 per cent were active here compared with only 50.3 per cent in Australia, according to a study reported in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health.

Overall, 63.7 per cent of New Zealand adults were active compared to 58.8 per cent in Australia.

The emphasis on getting New Zealanders off the couch is reflected in Mr Mallard's stated priorities for this year in his portfolio, particularly aimed at schools and at physical activity enhancing learning.

From this year schools must provide "quality physical movement".

"It means a bit more than doing sport," he said about the changes, foreshadowed just over a year ago.

A lot of school sports - cricket, for example - involved a great deal of standing and watching or sitting and watching and very little physical activity.

"What we have learned from some quite recent research is that if you keep kids moving - and especially if their hands or legs cross over the centre-line of their bodies - there is a bit of aerobic fitness, but what's more important is that they stimulate neural pathways in their brain.

"Those neural pathways are important for learning."

Mr Mallard said that when he first heard about the links between activity and learning "frankly I thought it was bullshit".

Now he has committed $8 million over four years for a primary and intermediate school initiative to fund specially trained teachers to either work with classroom teachers on improving the quality of physical activity or to take classes themselves.

Another priority was to try to get better transition to post-school sports. Too many students who participated at school then stopped - for example, the thousands of rowers who competed in the Maadi Cup but never went on to row for clubs.

Mr Mallard also wanted district health boards to develop their roles in promoting physical activity.

In terms of sporting events, he will be heavily involved in preparatory work for the 2011 Rugby World Cup.

Another priority will be preparing for the 2008 Olympics. Mr Mallard said there was a debate under way about how big the Beijing team should be and whether New Zealand should continue increasing its team size "or focus back down and tighten the standards".

"One of the interesting things in swimming has been as we head for the Commonwealth Games [in Melbourne in March] they've lifted their standards but they've got more qualifiers."

Mallard's top 5 NZ sports performances of 2005

1 Michael Campbell winning the US Open.
2 Four world rowing championship titles in 45 minutes in Japan.
3 All Blacks' Grand Slam tour of Britain and Ireland.
4 Netballers' two-test defeat of Australia, including by the biggest-ever margin.
5 Tri-Nations victory of the Kiwis rugby league team.

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