Sparc revamp not too bright

By Dylan Cleaver

Fears are surfacing that New Zealand athletes in outlying areas might suffer if a review of Sparc's high-performance systems leads to a significant revamp of regional sports academies.

A discussion document, leaked to the Herald on Sunday, contains four options for the management of high-performance sport in New Zealand.

One is the current model that sees the New Zealand Academy of Sport run out of Sparc HQ in Wellington, with three regional academies (North, Central and South) acting independently but in cooperation with national sporting organisations (NSOs) and service providers.

The other options are:

The same, with a reduced number of regional academies (probably one in each island).

No regional operations with services centralised at the NZAS.

The academy model replaced with a privately run National High-Performance Organisation.

The Herald on Sunday understands there were wildly varying views among Sparc's board when the document was tabled at the last board meeting. One school of thought wishes the status quo to remain, while another school, rumoured to be led by former New Zealand Cricket boss Chris Doig, is pushing for radical change.

Doig could not be reached for comment.
What isn't in doubt is the future of the three regional academies is under threat. If not all of them, then at least one, raising questions about the ability of athletes from areas outside main centres to benefit from many of the high-performance services.

However, Sparc chief executive Nick Hill said he was confident the board would come to a "considered and unanimous" decision as to the best way forward for New Zealand sport.

"It's just a stage in the process," Hill said. "What happens at those initial meetings is you get people's prejudices coming out. They put them on the table and we go away and do more work to get the facts."

New Zealand is coming off the back of what was widely regarded as its most successful year in sport. However, Hill said the best time to make changes "is when you're in control, that's when you have to be toughest on yourself". However, he reiterated he did not expect the changes to be radical.

"There's a lot of water to go under the bridge. It could well be there is no change."

While Hill promised there would be no "radical lurch", he said guaranteeing the future of the academies would be defeating the purpose of the review because it was up for consultation.

Academy of Sport South chairwoman Lois Muir said there was no need for sweeping changes, and that sport under the current system had come a "ginormous way".

"If they take all the top coaches and so on up to Auckland, or wherever, the athletes will have to queue up for them and I don't see how that's helpful."

AOS South chief executive Keryn Smith said she was working through a response to the document - responses have to be tabled by March 10 - and analysing the potential ramifications.

"We believe we've made a real difference in terms of performance environment in the South Island," Smith said. "It's both demonstrable and measurable. Without being arrogant we're optimistic we have an important role to play in the future."

Smith said it seemed obvious that major centralisation of sports services - such as medicine, science and psychology - would be detrimental for athletes and coaches in the South Island.
Sports psychologist Gary Hermansson, who worked with athletes in Athens 2004 and will be at Melbourne in two weeks time, said there was a natural dilemma between centralisation and de-centralisation.

"A unified service ensures us good coverage for some of the expertise," he said. "[But] if you centralise you run the risk of narrowing everything. You don't get the necessary range of expertise across each field. That's the dilemma. It would be nice to say pack everything up and move to Auckland and have all the services there but not every athlete and sport will have the means to do that."

Hill said that the issue of centralisation was not the most pressing priority of the document. He said the guts of the NZAS is the high-performance programme that a national sports organisation runs.

"The quality of those programmes is crucial, everything drives off that. That's why in the likes of cycling you get the Michael Flynns coming in; you've got Eric Hollingsworth in athletics.

"To me, all the decisions need to be driven off the logic and the quality of that high-performance programme. They're going to differ sport by sport around the degree to which it makes sense to centralise, and the degree to which it doesn't.

"For something like rowing, it makes sense to build the high-performance centre at Karapiro but, for a lot of team sports that draw people together from around the country, it is questionable as to whether that makes sense."

Keryn Smith admits to being a little surprised by the framework of the document. "What we had expected from this part of the process was a draft report that might talk more about what the future might look like and a draft strategy with recommendations. Obviously there was a feeling among Sparc that they wanted to get more feedback on particular elements of the strategy."

John Freer, chief executive of AOS Central, did not want to offer an opinion on the ramifications of the document to his academy until he had consulted with Sparc but said the document should be one "that sets a pathway forward. If that means we have to change, so be it".

The objective of Sparc's high-performance review was to assess information on which to base its strategies through to the 2012 London Olympics. Six experts in high performance offered advice.

In addition, consultancy firm AMR was contracted to assess the progress of the NZAS since its establishment in 2000.

- HERALD ON SUNDAY

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