Claire Trevett 's Opinion

Claire Trevett is the New Zealand Herald’s deputy political editor.

Claire Trevett: Politically speaking, sports funding a win-win

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Sally Pearson won the gold medal in the 100m hurdles. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Sally Pearson won the gold medal in the 100m hurdles. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Medals lead over Aussies was never going to last but politicians will keep paying up

New Zealand has done no better than expected. Finally normal transmission has been restored. Over the past two days, Australia tied the kangaroo down and rolled in three golds - for sailing, women's hurdles and cycling. It was almost back in the top 10 on the medal table.

But for five long, delicious, delirious days we had three golds to Australia's one.

We weren't the only ones delighted by this turn of events. The Brits also got in on the act. A satirical Prince Charles twitter account tweeted that Australia's Prime Minister Julia Gillard was diagnosed with "Olympic Finger": "Caused by repeated scrolling down to see Australia's medal tally."

America was apparently oblivious to there being countries other than itself and China at the Olympics, but newspapers in the United Kingdom printed merciless columns about Australia's plight and "the horror" of New Zealand being ahead.

Even some Australians found it amusing. One newspaper combined the medal totals on its medal table so that "AusZealand" was in the top 10 with four golds.

Another commentator observed "Team Oceania is doing quite well."

For a time, Australia was the laughing stock of the Games, the accidental stand-up routine. So it is understandable that the late string of golds brought great relief.

New Zealand had had its moment of glory and was happy to settle back and take succour from the rather risible "alternative medal table" which ranked countries' success according to population size.

In general, Australia's athletes expect to win, and are expected to win - meaning often they do win.

Australia dubbed the London Olympics "the Crying Games" because of all the wailing over the lowly silvers.

It then sought to convince itself that silver was still pretty good and congratulated their sub-gold medallists through gritted teeth.

In New Zealand there was almost more support for athletes who fell short of their goals than those who over-achieved. For Valerie Adams and Nick Willis there was a flood of support on social media and assurances they were still adored, despite the criticism they gave themselves.

That temporary giddy state of supremacy over Australia did distract from the fact that our victory was not because New Zealand had done especially well - but simply because Australia had not.

In fact, New Zealand has done no better than expected, and, in some cases worse. Sport New Zealand had said it would be watching carefully and set its own target of 10 or more medals at the Games. As of last night there were nine - five bronze, one silver and three gold.

The rowers held up their end and there were a few happy surprises - the women's hockey team has rocketed along, and there was a bronze for Simon van Velthooven who gazed, amazed, at the medal table: "What more could I want? Twenty-three years old from Feilding, Mr Manawatu! Who would have thought I'd get a bronze medal in the keirin?"

But others fell short. New Zealand's success was over-exaggerated purely because Australia had done badly, giving the illusion that New Zealand had over-achieved.

The athletes will like it that way, because good performances tend to mean good funding. But these are hard times and Finance Minister Bill English's tight-fisted rule that "nice to haves" will not be funded is getting harder to dodge.

Some sacrilegious people might consider that paying for world-class athletes does little to feed the children, making it a "nice to have".

Fortunately for those athletes, the Government itself appears to consider it a "must have" - not least because sporting success is considered to be linked to political success.

Australia's late run will be a salve for Gillard, who is foundering in the polls and has an election to fight next year. So it was with some relief that - after a deathly silence on Twitter throughout the Olympic Games - Gillard emerged following Tom Slingsby's gold in the sailing, declaring it to be "a win for all Aussies and especially for us rangas [red-heads] who think red is the new gold".

By comparison Prime Minister John Key had little to lose from this Olympics - every medal was a bonus and even if there were none, an election was still two years away.

Nonetheless, a medal or 20 would not go amiss in an election year and 2014 will see the Commonwealth Games. This might explain why at a time when Government departments are flailing under funding freezes, the Government increased Sport NZ's funding for high performance sport athletes by $5 million to $58 million over the next year.

The goal of that funding is "to make New Zealand the most successful sporting nation in the world". Mission not exactly accomplished. But politicians will pay up - because while a silver medal at the Olympics is a notable achievement, the same can not be said of second place in politics.

- NZ Herald

Claire Trevett

Claire Trevett is the New Zealand Herald’s deputy political editor.

Claire Trevett is the New Zealand Herald’s deputy political editor and joined the Press Gallery in 2007. She began with the Herald in 2003 as the Northland reporter before moving to Auckland where her rounds included education and media. A graduate of AUT's post-graduate diploma in journalism, Claire began her journalism career in 2002 at the Northern Advocate in Whangarei. Claire has conjoint Bachelor of Law/ Bachelor of Arts degrees from the University of Canterbury.

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