Simon Plumb is a journalist for the Herald on Sunday

'You feel used by Olympics'

World champion sailor Aleh says medal doesn’t change much.
Jo Aleh (right) wants to see things done differently every four years. Photo / AP
Jo Aleh (right) wants to see things done differently every four years. Photo / AP

Some of the country's top athletes are agitating for the role and influence of the New Zealand Olympic Committee to be scrutinised - with one athlete saying they feel "used" by the organisation.

World champion sailor Jo Aleh won gold in London 2012 and silver at this year's Rio Games, and the world-class athlete wants to see things done differently when it comes to the biggest few weeks every four years - questioning why her sport must hand over the reins to the NZOC.

"We run things for four years," Aleh said of Yachting New Zealand. "We know how to do things. Then every four years the NZOC comes in.

"We're running autonomous programmes then have to hand over control to a separate entity."

Aleh and champion rower Mahe Drysdale, who have five Olympic medals between them, including three golds, have already called for change in the way sport is funded in New Zealand, with an emphasis on athlete-coach funding, not system funding.

Top of the agenda is a structure that had 85 employees of Sport New Zealand and High Performance Sport New Zealand on salaries of more than $100,000 last year.

Athletes receive performance enhancement grants, which are taxed, ranging from $60,000 for a gold medallist to $55,000 for a medallist and $25,000 if they're in the world's top 12.

Athlete frustration with Kiwi sporting governance extends to the NZOC. Three-time Olympic medallist and double Olympic shot put champion Valerie Adams has long butted heads with the NZOC and was critical of the organisation in her book Valerie.

Adams, who had to rely on an Australian official to salvage the situation at the 2012 London Games after the NZOC forgot to properly register her, didn't want to be drawn into another fight with the national Olympic body.

But her manager Nick Cowan says the organisation remains awkward to deal with, even describing the NZOC as a business rival to athletes when it comes to commercial rights.

"Commercially it is a very difficult situation, and a robust, thorough and genuine review is needed to give the athletes faith they can earn much-needed commercial revenue in their short time in the sport," he said.

"The NZOC has effectively become competition to the athletes in the way it implements Rule 40."

Rule 40 is a controversial measure in the Olympic Charter that limits an athlete's individual sponsors during the Games. The clause almost caused several of New Zealand's top medal prospects, including champions Lisa Carrington, Hamish Bond, Eric Murray, Mahe Drysdale and Adams, to be deemed ineligible for Rio just two weeks out from the Games in a major stoush over an Air New Zealand advertising campaign.

The Weekend Herald this week saw an email sent to a group of athlete agents and managers inviting them to attend "an informal catch up". But those spoken to by the Herald say this will amount to nothing other than a "box-ticking exercise".

NZOC secretary general Kereyn Smith said all feedback would be taken into consideration in a wide-ranging upcoming debrief of the Rio Games campaign. She said she would be "disappointed and surprised" to hear of any athletes feeling used.

Asked what tangible changes could be achieved, Smith said she "hadn't really thought much about that but I'm sure there will be some".

"It will be a really comprehensive review," Smith said. "We'll be asking what worked, what didn't and suggestions for the future.

"I think there's every point [for manager feedback]. Anything that can help us and our athletes, we're interested to hear that and put it into decision-making."

When asked about Rule 40 and the specific Air New Zealand ad campaign that caused an issue on the eve of Rio, Smith said the problem came "later than ideal".

Athletes have long been unhappy with the contracts they must sign to be eligible to compete at the Olympic and Commonwealth Games - agreements that deny them the opportunity to promote their sponsors.

Athletes are also sold a vision of the years of sacrifice being worth it because of the riches that follow winning gold.

"The reality is the medal doesn't change much," Aleh said.

"Some of the athletes have their own sponsors. The corporates come in, but not for most people.

"You feel a bit used by the Olympics," she added.

There has also been frustration about the NZOC gazumping some national sports organisations who are desperately trying to find sponsors.

"They have the rings to sell, which is hard to compete with," one NSO source said.

Drysdale made reference to the fact he had to pay for his own upgrade to fly to the Olympics in business class. With a history of back injuries, he couldn't risk flying in economy.

The experience was instructive, Drysdale said. He estimated there were three athletes in the business class cabin travelling from Frankfurt to Rio. The rest of the seats seemed to be taken by officials, mainly from football governing body Fifa.

"Economy class was full of athletes," Drysdale said.

Smith said the 11 NZOC staff and two contractors who went to Rio flew on economy-class tickets, although "some upgraded on airpoints or were upgraded by Air NZ".

Smith said NZOC president Mike Stanley travelled to Rio on premium economy, paid for by the International Olympic Committee.

- NZ Herald

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