Paul Lewis on sport

Paul Lewis is the Herald on Sunday's Sport Editor

Paul Lewis: What Snell really meant

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Other countries are better at using their sports heroes as leaders and to inspire others, writes Paul Lewis.

Sir Peter Snell's comments have once again been taken the wrong way. Photo / Getty Images
Sir Peter Snell's comments have once again been taken the wrong way. Photo / Getty Images

There's a fair chance Sir Peter Snell is tearing out his hair in the US.

It's frustrating saying something critical (even in the 'analytical' rather than the 'uncomplimentary' sense of the word) about your country of origin, only for that country to pretty much repeat the mistake that led to the observation in the first place - but not realise it.

Snell responded to a question at an international athletics function in Barcelona about why he lived in the US. His answer was that New Zealand didn't seem to want him in his chosen field of research.

Possibly his choice of words wasn't the best. Calling New Zealand "weird" in our lack of support for many of our achievers risked bringing out the harvesters of tall poppies.

So, too, his espousal of Sir Russell Coutts - another expat knight with a fine sporting record but whose willingness to live and work overseas is often associated with more mercenary motives than Sir Peter's.

"They did it to Russell Coutts, who then went to Switzerland and took the Cup away. I loved that."

Snell wasn't saying that he loved the Cup being taken away; only that he loved the sportsman triumphing over the administrators who had, he thought, helped part Coutts from Team NZ. It was also a metaphor for how New Zealand has been run - as seen by people who can't find professional sustenance here.


Anyone who has lived outside New Zealand for an extended time will recognise what Snell is trying to say - in part, at least.

New Zealand is a small country with restricted means and resources. Sometimes, for some, the only way ahead is overseas. Once there, attitudes back home can seem small-minded and the thinking cloistered to those who have dipped a toe in bigger, more dynamic and monied waters.

It is sometimes sport that leads the way here. The All Blacks are an obvious spearhead; the NZRU has transitioned from the moribund us-against-the-world circle of closed-minded administrators into a genuinely world-class outfit. Our rowers have been among the best in the world for years; so, too, our sailors, triathletes and others.

What Snell, now 73 and still working in scientific research, is saying is that other countries do a better job of taking a sports hero with an intellect and a professional bent and shaping a leader who can inspire sportspeople and/or others in the same professional field. He regretted not being able to do more here. Science can be an economic and social boon but his view was that New Zealand had not chosen to foster it.

The recent NZ Herald editorial which talked about Snell's 40-year-old "grudge" and his "lasting resentment" being "deeply sad" drew a lot of comment from online correspondents - many of whom were returned or returning expats who found jobs and doors closed to them.

Many underlined Snell's contention that science was a closed shop, with insignificant investment in areas which could boost an economy.

What he was calling weird was that New Zealand did not build on its successes. His reference to the America's Cup was not new; he has made it before, to this writer last year.

He was commenting on ructions in New Zealand canoeing that saw Olympic heroes Ian Ferguson and Paul MacDonald threatened with dumping from the sport.

Here's what he said then: "We had a guy there who was on top of the game [Coutts] and won us the Cup. Then they said to him, 'Russell, you just drive the boat and we'll take care of business' and, when he jumped ship, they found it wasn't so easy to steer the boat. That's a bit of a stretch, maybe, but I remember the old way in New Zealand sport - like track and field, for example - that the administrators thought they were the most important people; that the sport couldn't exist without them. Nothing could be further from the truth.

"What seems to be happening these days is that there is much more of an emphasis on high performance management - but my belief is that has very little impact on what actually happens ... you can't tell me high performance management can take the credit for what New Zealand athletes like Valerie Adams and Nick Willis have done."

Rowing was New Zealand's top government-funded sport, with a thriving success rate, but Snell noted the presence of coaches such as Dick Tonks, who have helped increase this country's growing medal hauls at the Olympics.

"That's the thing that really makes the difference - iconic, driven coaches like Arthur Lydiard. You can't just dial up another coach. I hope this sort of thing isn't coming from what seems to be a new element in New Zealand sport which harks back to those old days - people being sticklers for the rules and athletes being told they have to do it this way or that way and, if they don't, it's the highway.

"I hope Sparc aren't being dictatorial ... and I hope high performance managers don't think they are most important because they hold the purse strings."


What he was really saying in Barcelona was more of the same - and maybe the reporting did not reflect that.

You can see the correlation between sport and science in Snell's thinking: the former in danger of losing its way in a mass of over-regulation and administration and the latter, a door closed when imagination could have opened the way to economic benefits. In both cases, the effect can be stifling.

Most expats still think of their country of origin as home. A minority may be so disaffected and embraced by their new country that they will never go home; they are already there.

But, for most Kiwis, there comes a time when thoughts inevitably turn homewards but if they feel the path there is blocked, it can be difficult. Snell maybe still feels the sting of that, 40 years later.

But it's not a grudge; nor is it "deeply sad" that he feels that way. What is sad is that we still haven't realised what he is trying to tell us.

- Herald on Sunday

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