ANY GIVEN MONDAY: THE FINAL CHAPTER
Of all the priorities facing the Government during a pandemic, fixing the country's high-performance sport system would be fairly low on the "to-do" list.
Assuming we eventually emerge from the global 2020 hellscape, it should move rapidly up the order of precedence.
The system IS broken. It starts with the funding model. I have written this before.
The minister returned fire, kind of, saying it WASN'T broken. Grant Robertson argued that you could have dual funding systems that on the one hand targeted results (high-performance) and on the other targeted loosely defined wellbeing objectives (participation).
There is potential for the arguments to descend into endless, self-serving feedback loops but the circuit-breaker should be this: High Performance Sport New Zealand is DEFINITELY broken.
For the sake of balance, let's get their excuses in first.
High-performance sport is a brutally tough environment. The pursuit of medals and championships can blur the line between brash and bullying. Lawyer Phillipa Muir summed up this imbalance in her report on the culture of the Football Ferns programme when she described coach Andreas Heraf's methods as leaving the realm of "robust coaching" into "bullying and harassment".
There is journalistic currency in "finding" the next broken programme. This has been mentioned more than once to me by people working at the coalface of sport, and there is some merit in this, as relates to the next point…
The disaffected have been emboldened by those who have spoken out before them. You could make an argument the issues in the Black Sticks women's programme might never have got the same traction had the toxicity in the Football Ferns not leaked out previously.
Likewise, disgruntled athletes might have seen the "dysfunction" at Cycling New Zealand and drew connections they might otherwise have ignored with what they were experiencing in their sport.
There's probably a smidgen of credibility in all these caveats but it only distracts from the central issue: there's an increasingly obvious disconnect between what the athletes expect from their coaches and systems and what coaches and systems expect from their athletes, and the role of HPSNZ and the funding model is central to these issues.
In turn, those issues are having a corrosive effect on the entire sports community.
There's an irony in that, as HPSNZ was created as a subsidiary of Sport New Zealand in part so it could be uncompromising and deal with the hard decisions around high-performance sport without it perverting the rest of the system. You could argue the opposite is true.
For context, in the wake of a disastrous Sydney Olympic campaign, Sport NZ (then Sparc) shifted from block funding to an investment model. Priority was given to sports that had succeeded in the past and were positioned to in the future.
That list of sports has shifted over the years but is in place now as Tier One and consists of rowing, cycling, sailing, athletics and canoe racing.
It provides, in effect, targeted investment that does little more than punish "losing" programmes and reinforces winning ones.
In talking to various stakeholders in national sporting organisations, within athlete welfare groups and sports academics, this has created some awful side effects which we tend to write off as "unintended consequences", but which others describe as utterly predictable.
The most obvious one is that NSOs and HPSNZ itself put all their resources into backing winners at the expense of everything else, including high-performance fundamentals like innovation and development, and community objectives.
Nobody wants to step outside the box labelled "best practice" (and of course best practice is determined by HPSNZ).
It makes sense.
If you're an NSO with limited resources and you need medals to keep or improve your funding levels, you're not going to take a punt on fringe athletes or theories. You're going to do what the minions at HPSNZ tell you to do.
This has the debilitating effect of making all but the elite feel undervalued and disenfranchised.
It also has the unhealthy effect of NSOs targeting elite young athletes and putting them on pathways to podiums and other counterproductive academy-based programmes.
This has directly led to what I believe is a grotesque corruption of kids' sport.
It has normalised the professionalisation (and subsequently the commoditisation) of youth sport and the disastrous effects of that are in full bloom now with plummeting participation numbers and widespread disillusionment, particularly in secondary school sport as we lurch further and further into an elitist mire.
Time and again we have seen issues raised across sports that range from bad to awful, whether it's hockey or football, cycling or gymnastics, swimming, kayaking or triathlon and time and again we're led to believe it's the individual NSOs that have taken their eye off the ball.
Only rarely does the spotlight fall on the high-performance system they are trying to work within, and that's partly because that organisation's CEO is so spotlight-averse he could be a ghost.
Not all sports CEOs need to be walking billboards like an Ian Robson, or as bullish as a Steve Tew or Grant Dalton, but Australian Michael Scott works on the extreme end of the invisibility spectrum.
He could walk through my front door, punch me on the nose and steal my wallet and I would have no idea I'd just been robbed by the same guy whose organisation has taken the taxpayer for $250 million in an Olympic cycle.
Part of this is no doubt by design. In the soon-departing Peter Miskimmin, Sport NZ has an eloquent spokesman for the sector, so Scott found it easy to ride in the back seat but this is only more evidence that HPSNZ does not need to be the independent entity that it is.
I have a couple of sounding boards I like to talk to about big-picture issues who believe the very idea of a big government sports agency is flawed and that all you need for the sector is a strong voice in various ministries including health, education and MBIE.
I'm not buying that, but I do believe it is past time to dramatically scale down HPSNZ.
It should occupy a corner office at Sport New Zealand and be a clearing house for high-performance funding, nothing else. It should not be in the bricks and mortar or systems delivery business.
At the moment it has an oversized influence on the fates of too many NSOs, yet is reluctant to take ultimate responsibility when they fail.
Over the past five years we've seen too many high-performance systems get badly out of whack. Some of them have been the most lavishly funded programmes in the country.
There will be others on tenterhooks now waiting to see if they're the next to have their "methods" exposed.
We're in an endless spin cycle of high pressure, breakage, review and reset.
All while the grassroots wither.
It is time to increase the capabilities of NSOs, many of whom use centralised systems either reluctantly or as a crutch, and then get out of their way as they go to market to find the best providers for their needs.
This is, admittedly, a simplistic overview of an intricate high-performance puzzle but to strain that analogy, we've used all the pieces in the box and discovered there are still big gaps in the picture.
The only way the current system is sustainable is if the only measure of a country's sporting health is Olympic medals.
By any other metric, it is time to change direction.
This strangest of years has provided the perfect cover to do that.
THOSE OF you with Holmes-like powers of deduction might have guessed from the title that this will be my final Any Given Monday.
There have been more than 80 of them, with close to 150 Midweek Fixtures preceding that.
My focus has nearly always been on issues or incidents affecting New Zealand sport and there are only so many opinions and analysis you can offer on the same subjects before it starts to feel recycled (see above).
So it just feels like the right time to shift gear.
I'm not going away, which might come as a grave disappointment, particularly those disgusted by my assertion last week that the Prime Minister was on the money when she pointed to Sanzaar "politics" as a driving force behind the Rugby Championship being played across the Tasman.
I could almost feel the flecks of saliva on your keyboard as you hammered out missives.
But hey, don't get angry, get busy.
One of the features of my re-tooled column will be a big red pillar box where you drop me a line to ask me a question or my opinion on anything.
You can even use it just to rinse some bile off your liver if you want.
The best questions and correspondence will be chosen, with priority always given to those who use their real names.
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