As New Zealand's top sports people prepare for the London Olympics in July, Susan Edmunds looks at the struggle young athletes face to break through the funding barrier

Ten years ago, the mother of top Kiwi rower Juliette Haigh was doing a paper run in Auckland. Each week Penny Haigh sent her earnings to her daughter in Cambridge, to help pay the rent and feed her.

The soon-to be world champion rower was struggling to survive while she trained for her sport, and her mum offered to help out. It was not until 2005 that the two-time Olympian rower began to get official funding.

Before that, there were several lean years as she worked through the grades to reach the world ranking that earned funding. For a while, rowing was a fulltime job, without anything like a fulltime salary.

Haigh, 29, says members of the sport's summer squad, from which the top teams are chosen, get about $200 a week. She knows first-hand how hard it is to juggle working with training twice a day and manage on so little money. One summer she survived on a total of $1500. Haigh could live reasonably cheaply in Cambridge but there was no money for extras, she says. If something went wrong with her car, that meant trouble.

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Her mother remembers paying board and rent for her daughter and forking out for her overseas trips. "Generally speaking, parents have to fund [rowers] until they are elite athletes," she says. Once athletes reach the top, sports funding and sponsorship take over. But it's that struggle through the ranks that is tough. The difference when the money started coming in was "amazing", Haigh says. "You can buy the sports hydrate you need to drink while you're training that previously you might have gone without, or the supplements you need . . . You can get more out of it."

Haigh will not be the only relieved athlete when she boards her flight to the Olympic Games in London. The battle to be one of more than 200 in the country's elite squad, clad in their Rodd & Gunn Olympic uniforms, comes after a long, hard, expensive slog.

Phill and Robyn Cohen, parents of men's double- sculls world champion Nathan Cohen, 26, remember ferrying their son around Christchurch before he got his driver's licence. The Cohens, who ran a brick-and-tiling business in Invercargill, say they were lucky to be able to take time out from the business.

"We used to share the driving, working in with other families," says Robyn. She remembers having to have "heaps of food" in the kitchen cupboards. It was a family affair with Nathan working in the tile factory to earn extra money and his nana dropping parcels of her baking from a bridge while her grandson was training. The Cohens will be on the sidelines in London, too, cheering on their son. "We wouldn't miss that," says Phill."We went to Beijing [when Nathan was paired in the double sculls with Rob Waddell]. It's been a family thing."

Success fuels a determination for more, he says. "You can't ask for more than the flag and the national anthem to drive that."

The parents who have sacrificed much have to pay their own way to London but their top-performing offspring will have all their expenses taken care of. They will be sitting in economy class - it's policy to keep the team together, no matter how they perform - but they won't have to pay for any food, accommodation or travel.

Sponsors foot 95 per cent of the $6 million cost of sending the New Zealand team. The Government pays the remaining 5 per cent. The government contribution is distributed to athletes through High Performance Sport NZ (HPSNZ), a new body that brings together national highperformance sports organisations, under the guidance of chief executive Alex Baumann, a former Olympian for Canada.

Funding is increasingly based on results, yet another pressure on athletes to stay at the top. HPSNZ has its sights set on 10 medals at this Olympics. How well a sportsperson performs dictates the level of funding they receive. Haigh says her funding has fluctuated over the years, depending on how she has fared at events such as world championships.

New Zealand Olympic Committee secretary general Kereyn Smith says, "It's not about fairness and equity, it's about investing in success." She acknowledges the level of pressure our top athletes will be under. "Four billion people will watch the London Olympics on some form of device. It's a massive, massive event. There's 10,500 athletes, 25,000 media. It's not like going to a world champs."

HPSNZ invests in targeted sports, including the Olympic disciplines of athletics, cycling, rowing, swimming, triathlon and yachting, as well as team sports including rugby, cricket and netball. High-performance athletes in these and other sports can also apply for extra funding but must show they have achieved results.

Of all the sports, rowing gets the most funding, $4.82 million this year, because of its high medal chances. Cycling received $4.285m in both targeted and contestable funding this year. Hockey pulled in $2.3m across both men's and women's sports. This year, 185 Prime Minister's scholarships were handed out across the Olympic disciplines, covering fees of up to $10,000 a year and offering an allowance of $4000. That money is intended to enable young athletes to better focus on their careers by taking care of expenses.

Top athletes are funded through a mix of performance-based funding through their sport, performance enhancement grants from HPSNZ, which are also tied to achievement, and the Prime Minister's scholarships. It's how the mix stacks up, with sponsors' contributions, that dictates how easy, financially, an athlete's ride to the Olympics will be.

Runner Nikki Hamblin, 23, is a strong contender for the Olympics in spite of a highly publicised falling out with her coach last year, which was partially blamed for her failure to finish inside the top 16 in the world championships. Because of that, she missed out on a performance enhancement grant from HPSNZ. But her ranking was still high enough for Athletics New Zealand to consider her a top-tier athlete and provide her with access to perks, such as physiotherapists.

At the other end of the scale, a consistently high-achieving athlete like shot putter Valerie Adams is able to earn a good living from her sport. One source says AthleticsNZ will put "a substantial amount into Valerie's account" this year.

BMX rider and Olympian Sarah Walker, 23, says that pressure to succeed to get funding helps focus the mind. It's her performance at the world championships each year that dictates how much she'll earn over the coming 12 months. "I'm basically racing for my income," she says. It hasn't always been that way.

When Walker started, BMX riding was not an Olympic sport and she thought she would never be able to turn it into anything but a hobby.

To earn money to go to Perth for the world championships when she was 15, Walker did forestry work in the Kawerau Forest. "I raised enough to get my whole family to Perth."

For lots of athletes, she says, the defining moment in their careers is not their first Olympics but that first lot of funding. After that they can concentrate fully on their sport.

In the past three years the Government has increased its investment in high-performance sport to $60 million a year. More than $150 million has gone into the four-year funding cycle leading up to the London Olympics.

Sports Minister Murray McCully says the increased investment recognises the role athletes play in promoting the New Zealand brand and in being role models for sport participation.

Kereyn Smith says that investment has paid off. "We have more athletes than ever before in positions to succeed." But, she says, smaller sports are often not adequately resourced, such as canoe slalom athletes who were recently selected for the Olympics. "Some programmes and athletes are better resourced than others. They're not necessarily supported in the same manner over the four-year period."

Canoe slalom received $55,000 in contestable funding but in some cases, if a particular sport is not doing well as a whole, it will miss out entirely on funding.

Malcolm Gibb, Canoe Slalom NZ president, thinks it's unfair his sport gets comparatively so little funding. "We'd like to get a bigger piece of the pie. We are an Olympic sport." Brett Addison, sport manager at Athletics New Zealand, says problems occur when athletes who are a tier belowthe high performers believe they deserve a higher ranking. "That's why we have a well-communicated, robust carding system, so they knowwhat they need to do to get to the next level."

It's often unpaid volunteers who help lift them to that next level. John White, a volunteer and coach at West End rowing club, set Nicky Coles and Juliette Haigh up as a crew. They went on to win the 2005 world championships and competed in the 2004 and 2008 Olympics. White doesn't expect to get paid."It's the love of the sport and seeing people push on." Volunteer Dianne Campbell was hard at work last weekend at the New Zealand rowing championships at Lake Karapiro. She's been involved for 30 years.

"My first job was going out on the course to pick up buoys. I went on to help the ladies at the nationals in the kitchen. I buttered bread, I baked, then I worked in control for nine years [typing results] before it was computerised. I'm back making the sandwiches and scones for the volunteers." But White warns that volunteer support is dwindling and lots of clubs are struggling to retain their coaches. "Most kids want to go on and do something else after their time in the boat. Ultimately, schools arepayingcoaches, which takes resources away from the club."

He suggests a solution could be to pay a fee to clubs that produce international rowers. "That way you could pay club coaches and provide a reward system, rather than just feeding from the top." Come July, all that personal and monetary investment is expected to bring home results-that is, medals.

Although it has been a struggle for athletes like Haigh, she says she wouldn't change the hard work she and her parents put in to get to the level where her sport came with a salary. The financial strain would never have made her give up, she says. "Sometimes in sport, it's not a bad thing to have to work really hard to get the result you need to move up in the system. It says a lot about you as an athlete."