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Dylan Cleaver: We need to talk about how white the NZ Olympic team is

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Members of the New Zealand rowing team after being announced ahead of the Rio Olympics. Photo / Getty
Members of the New Zealand rowing team after being announced ahead of the Rio Olympics. Photo / Getty

Faster, stronger... whiter.

That could be the New Zealand Olympic Committee's motto as they put the finishing flourishes on their team to Rio. We should have dressed this team in homburgs, garters and gloves because this is what New Zealand looked like in the 1950s.

Less than two months ago, six major national sporting organisations trumpeted their commitment to diversity, launching the hashtag #sportforeveryone. Rugby, cricket, netball, league, football and hockey bosses have committed to developing policies that will lead to "greater inclusion" in sport regardless of gender, sexual orientation and ethnicity.

Lack of diversity in Olympic team? NZOC respond

Ironic then that the NZOC are sending a team to the Olympics that bears little resemblance to modern New Zealand. If it wasn't for the inclusion of rugby sevens on the programme, the discrepancy would be even more stark.

Looking at the team as it stands now, with more than 170 selected, outside of sevens you can count the number of Maori and Pacific Islanders on your fingers. Around a fifth of the population identifies as Maori or Pacific Islander.

It is unfair to sheet this home to the NZOC, which is more a marketing firm than a sporting organisation. The spotlight really should fall on Sport New Zealand, and in particular High Performance Sport NZ.

New Zealand's Greatest Olympians - Number 24: Norman Read

There's a very good reason why our Polynesian communities will be hopelessly under-represented in Brazil - the targeted funding model.

Look at the Olympic sports HPSNZ have invested heavily in during the past few cycles: rowing, cycling, sailing, equestrian, swimming, athletics and triathlon.

The big three, the ones that suck up the lion's share of the taxpayer kitty - cycling, sailing and rowing - have 66 athletes attending Rio. At a calculated guess, no more than three would identify as Maori or Pacific Islander and less as New Zealand Asian.

Most of those sports are prohibitively expensive for families at the unfortunate end of the socio-economic scale and only one, athletics, has been embraced to any extent by Pacific Island communities. It is not stereotyping to say that Polynesian and Asian role models in these sports are thin on the ground.

The sports will argue they're doing what they can at grassroots level to cast their net as wide as possible but the simple fact is they spend their money on trying to win medals, not new friends. That is how success is measured.

The real Rio: What Olympic officials don't want you to see

"Sport is who we are as Kiwis, and we're very good at it," said Sport NZ CEO Peter Miskimmin when the #sportforeveryone initiative was launched. "Our participation rates are among the highest in the world and we produce more than our fair share of winners on the world stage."

What Miskimmin says is true, but at the same time he must be acutely aware that those participation rates do not apply across all sectors of society. He surely knows that while Polynesians might be "over-represented", if there can be such a concept, in rugby, league and netball, they barely feature in most of our traditional Olympic codes.

He must also be acutely aware that the rate of adult and morbid obesity in New Zealand is climbing at rates that counter the argument that we are a nation of sporting self-starters.
Miskimmin knows, for example, that the new migrant communities, mostly from Asia, have poor participation rates. Are they inherently uninterested in sport, or have we as a country been unable to offer the encouragement needed to engage in "our" sports or offer the infrastructure to enjoy "their" sports?

The answer is almost certainly the latter.

Is connecting these disparate strands to a lilywhite Olympic team fair?

It is and it isn't.

It shouldn't change our perception of the athletes in this team - they are all there on merit - or the pride we feel in the haul of medals they will undoubtedly carry home. Every single one of these athletes, regardless of gender or ethnicity, has done something extraordinary to be selected. They have all worked diligently within the system that has been provided.

Looking bigger-picture, however, these questions need to be asked.

It is this quadrennial obsession with medals that shapes every sports funding decision this country makes, yet we win medals in sports many of our citizens will never even get the opportunity to play. It's a curious contradiction.

There is growing disquiet in sports circles about the funding and high-performance model we have adopted. This column is in part the result of an off-the-record chat last week with a man closely connected to this country's Olympic legacy.

Talking about how the high-performance spend is divvied up, he was unequivocal: We've got it all wrong, he said, and as long as we kept judging our sense of sporting worth on a two-week period every four years, he said, we'll keep getting it wrong.

I'm not sure it's "all wrong". In fact, there's a lot right about it.

In many respects, high-performance models are cyclical. At the time this current funding model was adopted and then adapted, it was important for New Zealand to lift their performance in the Olympic arena (remember the embarrassment of the "home" Olympics in Sydney and the one gold, three bronze return?).

There are rarely simple solutions to such a complex issues and any change will take time. Unless there are radical changes to the funding model, or a commitment by those targeted sports to actively reach out to new migrant and Polynesian communities, we're going to keep sending teams to the Olympics that are reflective of a society we used to be, not what we have become.

THE WEEK IN MEDIA

We've changed things up a little here. The Sports Sharemarket and betting segments have shifted to Friday, same time, same channel. Rather than focusing on just one eye-catching story, I'll link to a few of the best sports items I've chanced upon in the dusty recesses of the interweb this week.

This retrospective 'live' blog of the unforgettable 1982 World Cup semifinal between France and Germany was clever.

From, the same site, this is LOL.

On a slightly different note, the Rialto channel's press office shoulda-coulda done better than this promo of an upcoming Mark Hunt documentary. "From an abusive childhood that should have led to a life of crime and self-destruction to a headlining UFC fight and the support of not just his fans but the nation of his birth, athlete Mark Hunt is both a street fighter and an inspiration." Should have? So every child born into an abusive environment should go on to live a life of crime and self destruction? Should, most definitely, would have been better as could.

With the Olympics approaching it's time to embrace sports we wouldn't normally, and this gymnast might be one to keep an eye on, courtesy of Doubletruck.

- NZ Herald

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