In an exclusive column written for the Herald, Mahé Drysdale sheds a light on the realities of life as a high performance athlete and how changes can be made to give athletes more of a say.
This week's Cycling New Zealand review must work as a catalyst to reconstruct high performance sport in this country.
Here's how it can be done.
The crux of the issue is that athletes – the most important people in the system - aren't consulted regarding decisions made about them.
That's got to change.
Wellbeing and medals are not mutually exclusive, but what would go further than money thrown at wellbeing would be allowing athletes a bigger say in their future. Top sportspeople would then be more accountable for decisions and would have to sleep in the bed they made. Right now it's easy, and warranted, to complain about sleeping in a bed being made in a way you don't like.
Athletes need independent representation to do this; the Heron report said as much. The New Zealand Athletes Federation (NZAF) is the only such body already in existence with the skills to achieve this, so seems an obvious starting point for contact with High Performance Sport NZ (HPSNZ). My understanding of the proposed HPSNZ athlete voice mechanism is that it is funded by HPSNZ, doesn't have the mandate of the athletes, and might struggle to push through unpopular changes required.
HPSNZ have done a lot of work in the athlete representation space over recent months, but that's the problem; they have done the work, not the athletes. There has been little consultation with those that are most affected.
HPSNZ is also investing plenty into athlete wellbeing. I'm not sure that's money well spent. The issue could be better sorted by liaising with an independent body that represents the athletes, such as the NZAF, to help structure what works best for elite sportspeople from the outset, not how management think it might work best. That could potentially reduce the long-term mental health/wellness budget.
Athletes also must remember high performance sport is tough; it's not for everyone. We cannot lose sight of medals because ultimately that's what the public is funding us to deliver. It's about getting a balance, while bearing in mind not every athlete will always be happy, or make it. Big decisions such as selections are often made and people miss out. That's reality, but doesn't mean those athletes can't be meaningfully supported.
Athletes need input into decisions that impact their daily lives. They're sick of watching people who don't partake in the daily grind making calls on how it's best to spend money to enable performance.
That's been a frustration for years. There's a lot of investment in sport, but also a lot of waste. An example is the work being done on the athlete voice mechanism over the past 18 months. Money is being spent on setting up something the athletes didn't get meaningful input into, and which a number now don't believe is a viable independent solution.
It's absolutely needed, but the process is flawed.
Another example was TAPS (Tailored Athlete Pathway Support) to replace PEG (Performance Enhancement Grant) payments to athletes.
Rowing is the best funded Olympic sport in New Zealand, yet there was minimal athlete consultation about what we thought and how it could be changed for the better. That's an indictment on HPSNZ and must change.
We've got to look at this with a holistic eye. At the heart, athletes need to be given an opportunity to drive the changes required, feel valued and trusted, rather than a commodity used and thrown away at any point.
My confidence in HPSNZ in driving the changes required is low right now. They have largely done a good job through the years of running sport in this country, but there are glaring omissions. To my mind, review followed by review have proven meaningful change cannot be made until we put athletes at the heart of this and allow them the input they deserve.
Hopefully the latest cycling review is pivotal in athletes getting a say in how best to run sport in this country. Our athletes' wellbeing and sport budgets would feel the benefit and the money saved on reviews would be considerable.
He aha te mea nui o te ao, he tangata, he tangata, he tangata.