Andrew Alderson

Andrew Alderson is a sport writer for the Herald on Sunday.

Winter Olympics: Finding the cold hard cash

Speedskater Shane Dobbin had a top 10 finish at Sochi. Photo / AP
Speedskater Shane Dobbin had a top 10 finish at Sochi. Photo / AP

Call it 'The Curse Of Coberger'.

With the Sochi flame about to be snuffed, debate rages, as it has every Winter Olympics since Annelise Coberger took silver in the slalom at Albertville in 1992, as to the quality of New Zealand's performance.

The team failed to meet the demands of High Performance Sport New Zealand who, in December 2012 with the release of their quadrennial investment plans, stated: "We're targeting one or more medals at the Olympic Winter Games in Sochi ... and we're investing in the sports we believe can deliver them."

That's why the New Zealand campaign faces scrutiny rather than conceding to sycophantic arguments 'the athletes did their best'. Few will doubt they have but failure to meet a medal target necessitates budgetary pruning.

Until Wednesday, things looked grim. Then the men's freeski halfpipe produced redemption with Jossi Wells getting fourth, his brother Beau-James sixth and Lyndon Sheehan ninth.

Janina Kuzma backed up with fifth in the women's event. Those results were reinforced by Shane Dobbin's seventh in the 10,000m long track speed skating. Five top 10 finishes.

Before those results, New Zealand's best performance in the five Olympics since 1992 was Ben Sandford's 10th in the skeleton at Torino in 2006.

However, swimmer Lauren Boyle finished fourth in the 800m at the London Olympics and the sport's budget took a dive from $1.65 million to $1.4 million after 16 years of no medals. It returned to $1.5 million after Boyle's trio of bronze medals at last year's world championships. Similarly the $1.585 million received by triathlon in Olympic year was pared to $1.4 million for 2013 and 2014 after Andrea Hewitt was the best of the New Zealand finishers with sixth at London.

The Winter Olympics received similar funding to swimming and triathlon - $1.815m (2013) and $1.7m (2014) - leading to Sochi. They were relatively well-resourced. Similar funding is scheduled for the next two years. Some will argue the same investment in the winter programme is justified. Using the figure of 3.115 million taxpayers, as listed in May 2013 Treasury reports, each taxpayer forked out an average of 56 cents to the Winter Olympic cause. It's hardly breaking the bank but is it money well spent?

Swimming and triathlon, albeit as part of a bigger New Zealand team, didn't need a Sochi ratio of more than two accredited officials to each athlete (31:15) as reported in the build-up. In Vancouver, it was 16 athletes and 20 officials.

Public perception wasn't helped by Rebecca Torr locking the Tinder app into her phone and expressing a desire to liaise with the Jamaican bobsledders. Few would have begrudged her request - provided she'd competed first.

Taxpayers don't like the thought their money is taken for granted, regardless of the figure.

Chef de mission Peter Wardell told NewstalkZB the funding's about building depth, which New Zealand lacks by comparison with other nations. "You can't just wait until you think you're going to win a medal and then turn up, because you'd have no depth at all.

"If we keep on working at it, come Pyeongchang in four years we should be in the position that we can medal, if that's what people really want."

The trouble is only three of the 16 athletes at Vancouver - Ben Sandford, Rebecca Sinclair and Shane Dobbin - returned at Sochi. That hardly suggests sustainability.

The Winter Olympics are a tough sell to New Zealanders at the best of times without any perception of complacency. Yes, many Kiwis live in alpine climes where learning to ski is a rite of passage but for others, such sports are something they watch every four years, while seldom coming near snow and ice.

It's not like watching running, swimming or cycling, in which most New Zealanders will have participated at some point. The thought of jumping on a skeleton sled, taking off on a ski jump or going off piste with a rifle on your back is foreign. Hence the hoo-ha over how much funding is justified.

The reality is if New Zealand is to improve, then athletes can't stay at home. They need North American and European competitions; an expensive business if they're not winning prizemoney. To cut funding would further condemn the winter Olympic movement.

A radical solution to get more funding was floated by four-time Olympian Simon Wi Rutene after the last Games: Use the revenue made by skifields throughout the country through a tax on each ski pass. Claim a nominal figure like $1 to go into a fund to send athletes overseas to train and race. That way those who support the snow business with their alpine holidays would also be backing the country's Winter Olympic aspirations. Until then, public irritation will continue until there are podium results for the cash.

- Herald on Sunday

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