Michael Burgess is a sports writer for the Herald on Sunday.

Olympics: Waddell in new bid for medals

New Zealand athlete and Olympian Rob Waddell. Photo / Brett Phibbs
New Zealand athlete and Olympian Rob Waddell. Photo / Brett Phibbs

New Zealand is on the cusp of a medal deluge in Rio, and there's a certain symmetry that Rob Waddell will be at the centre of it all.

As Chef de Mission, Waddell will be the face of the Olympic team, presiding over more than 200 athletes. But as a competitor himself, Waddell was a key figure in New Zealand's recent Olympic revival, helping to kick start the process that has delivered so much silverware.

New Zealand is aiming for 14 medals (and could realistically achieve even more) in Brazil, which would exceed the record-equalling tally of 13 in London (2012) four years earlier. It would continue an upward trend. Athens (2004) saw 25 per cent more medals than Sydney, then Beijing's haul represented an 80 per cent increase on what occurred in Greece. The output in London upped the ante again, a 44 per cent rise on 2008.

This country has become used to Olympic glory but it hasn't always been this way. New Zealand sent its biggest ever team (151 athletes) to Sydney, more than 50 per cent larger than in Atlanta four years earlier. But while hosts Australia soared - with 58 gold medals alone - New Zealand struggled.

Key hopes like Beatrice Faumuina (discus), Sarah Ulmer (cycling), Hamish Carter (triathlon) and Chris Dickson and Glen Sowry (sailing) were among many who missed the podium.

Two-time world champion Waddell was expected to medal, but the poor results around him meant he had to win, to avoid New Zealand's first Olympics without a gold in more than 50 years.

"It was probably fair to say I was one of the last gold medal chances at that Games, being realistic about who had already competed and what the results were," recalled Waddell. "I know it was discussed and I recall being asked that before I was racing. I remember feeling a fair bit of pressure and expectation, but none so much as my own."

The final was one of the toughest races of his career.

"It was a particularly hard pace during the middle of the race," said Waddell. "I typically had a very strong middle of the race and the main opposition [Xeno Muller] tried to surprise me during that phase by really pushing it. I found myself behind in the last 500m, which was an unusual situation [as] typically I had popped through the pack at that stage."

But Waddell found a late extra gear to surge past Muller, and crossed the line 8m ahead of the Swiss.

Waddell's feat prevented a gold-less game. That had last occurred in London in 1948 (from a team of only seven competitors) and had it happened in 2000 it might have triggered a downturn in funding and interest in Olympic sports.

It was also rowing's first gold since 1984 and the beginning of the current halcyon period for the sport. Waddell's medal delivered money into the sport for the next cycle and was the first Olympic gold for super coach Dick Tonks.

The race at Penrith Lakes also inspired the likes of Mahe Drysdale, Eric Murray, Hamish Bond and the Evers-Swindell twins.

Waddell appeals as a perfect candidate for the Chef de Mission role, with his athlete-centric focus.

"Our athletes have had a lot of experience at big events and are used to the challenges. There is an element of resilience," said Waddell. "There is a consistency there now, which seems to be repeatable. Planning can be a big driver of performance."

Waddell agrees that New Zealand is in the middle of a golden phase.

"There are good systems, processes and leadership in New Zealand sport right now. We are working collaboratively and we are small enough that we can do that and not so big that we are clumsy. There is a lot of shared technology and coaches and high performance directors from various sports often get together." Although the Rio Olympics begin in less than a week, there is also an eye on Tokyo in 2020 and beyond.

"Tokyo has been discussed," said Waddell. "Not yet detailed planning but it is just around the corner. I think in most sports there is a focus on developing future talent, ensuring pathways and programmes for younger athletes that builds the base of the triangle. It's a cycle, and we have to ensure opportunities are always there."

- Herald on Sunday

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