New Zealand sport could be in for its biggest shakeup since the cheerless days post-Sydney Olympics.

Phrased slightly differently, Sport New Zealand could be in for its biggest makeover in more than a decade.

In election year you can forget about the tired old notion that sport and politics don't mix.

In the lead-up to the August poll, Labour and Greens indicated dissatisfaction with New Zealand's sporting set-up. While it is easier to be braver in opposition than it is in Government, early signs point to High Performance Sport New Zealand losing the relative autonomy it has been afforded since inception in 2011.


Labour's then-spokesman for sport Trevor Mallard was unambiguous about his views on Sport NZ and HPSNZ, telling the Herald on Sunday's Andrew Alderson that the two bodies must be "combined".

Today it was announced Grant Robertson would take the Minister for Sport and Recreation portfolio. Pairing it with the weighty finance portfolio is intriguing. It would not be drawing too long a bow to suggest that he would be an easy mark for critics if he allowed for largesse in sport while taking control of the country's pursestrings.

The formation of HPSNZ was the culmination of a decade of increased Crown investment in elite sport with the aim of New Zealand performing well on the global stage. This occurred in the wake of a disastrous one gold, three bronze haul at the 2000 Olympics - a result that saw New Zealand finish 46th on the medal table, behind countries like Uzbekistan and Azerbaijan.

The New Zealand Sports Foundation and Hillary Commission essentially morphed into Sparc under the Sport and Recreation New Zealand Act 2002.

Between the Athens '04 and Beijing Olympic campaigns, after a Melbourne Commonwealth Games effort that fell well below target, Sparc moved to a targeted funding model that identified campaigns and individuals that were best placed to return medals.

All the while, Crown funding was increasing, from $6.2 million in 2001-02 to more than $80m in 2012-13.

In 2011, in a bid to sharpen New Zealand's elite pathways and performance, High Performance Sport New Zealand was split from Sport New Zealand (formerly Sparc), leaving the latter to concentrate on the development, implementation and funding of strategies for recreation and community and regional sport.

If success is measured in medals, you could argue the latest incarnation of New Zealand's centralised system is working well. At the London Olympics, the first following the formation of HPSNZ, New Zealand finished 14th on the table, winning six golds in its 13-medal haul. This was a significant improvement on New Zealand's three gold, nine-medal haul in Beijing.

Last year, in Rio de Janeiro, New Zealand slipped down the table to 19th, with the disappointment of four golds masked by a record haul of 18 medals.

It was a curious campaign, marked by a print media boycott of Rio that meant that on-the-ground coverage was little more than New Zealand Olympic Committee propaganda. It was only after the team returned that athlete dissatisfaction with how things were working at the pointy end started to crystallise.

Three-time Olympic medallist Mahe Drysdale and two-time medallist Jo Aleh became the spokespeople for many when they went public with their criticisms of a bureaucracy that saw 85 Sport NZ and HPSNZ employees on salaries more than $100,000, while athletes were offered Performance Enhancing Grants that ranged from $60,000 for a gold medallist to $25,000 if you were top 12 in the world.

This was underscored by something more uncomfortable: a growing belief that using Olympic medals as a yardstick for sporting success is at best flawed, at worst counter-productive to the overall sporting health of a nation.

Back to the election campaign and Green MP Julie Anne Genter was as forthright as Mallard, saying: "Sports spending needs to be reviewed because at the moment we have double-ups and crossover between these boards. These entities are burning through a lot of public money that needs to be better focused on our athletes."

The sport portfolio is rarely a priority for new governments, so it would be a surprise to see major changes appear in any "First 100 days" lists, but there must be an element of discomfort in Sport New Zealand's Customhouse Quay offices and, more particularly, the HPSNZ base at the Millennium Institute on Auckland's North Shore.

HPSNZ recently lost highly regarded Canadian Alex Baumann as chief executive and replaced him with an Australian Michael Scott, who is yet to start. There are quite rightly questions being asked as to why New Zealand's vaunted "system" hasn't been able to groom a local administrator capable of heading HPSNZ.

Robertson is a cricket tragic and a sports nut. You suspect he will embrace the role in a way that Jonathan Coleman never did. That guarantees nothing, however.

We contacted Sport New Zealand in the hope of getting a sense of which way they thought the Wellington wind would blow but the response was that it was too soon to talk.

But they need to start talking soon.

As a high-performance sporting nation, New Zealand has undergone some incredible highs in the past decade. The country's athletes have won 40 Olympic medals including 13 golds and many world championship titles, particularly in rowing, kayaking, cycling, sailing and athletics.

(For the purposes of this we will ignore rugby's myriad successes as, rightly, they receive only a fraction of their funding from Government.)

The common denominator? The successful sports are all heavily funded by the Crown.

Other sports, less gilded but no less popular, meanwhile get next to nothing and rely on gaming machine money to survive. This is not necessarily a bad thing; you cannot hand pots of gold to every sport so it makes sense on one level to target those that can deliver a return, though it does set in place a vicious cycle.

When many of those targeted sports are available really only in the more moneyed schools -rowing and sailing to name just two - you get uncomfortably close to fostering the sort of elitism New Zealand has always prided itself on avoiding, and the sort of elitism that will be anaethema to a centre-left government.

"The balance of funding has gone too far in favour of elite sport," said Mallard in the HoS. "Medals are important, but exercise and participation are more so."

Again, talk is cheap.

Those sporting administrators who know their way around the Beltway, including longtime Sport NZ CEO Peter Miskimmin, will be using their vast knowledge of the sporting landscape to lobby the new Government on why large-scale change is not needed.

When you market yourself as a Government of change, however, people will be watching... and expecting.


Remarkable scenes during the first round of Plunket Shield matches. The Shield, the ugly duckling of the domestic cricket calendar, might annoy the crap out of the bean counters at New Zealand Cricket but it still remains the only place where the country's best cricketers can properly learn the skills they hope will take them to the top.

As it is, the Good Ship Black Caps might have sailed for 38-year-old Michael Papps but he gave a vivid demonstration at the Basin Reserve about why it is so important that NZC keeps placing a premium on keeping good players in the first-class game longer.

Too often we trade experience for youth and that has an inevitable knock-on effect for the national side. Players come to first-class cricket too early and in turn graduate to international cricket too early. There will always be the odd freak whose talent demands fast-tracking but the vast majority of players require four or five years of first-class cricket, alongside the likes of your Pappses, Jeetan Patels and James Franklins before they are ready to step up.

Looking through a couple of those team lists, some of them have tilted too far towards youth again.


Dreadful news out of Fairfax Media last week with axing of their regional sports reporters.

I'm not in any position to comment on the business case but having grown up in the "regions" I know how crucial local sports news is to the community.

When this connection breaks, what are the residents of places like New Plymouth, Nelson, Invercargill, Tauranga and Napier-Hastings left with? The syndicated sports news you can get anywhere.

This announcement really was a blow for the media industry and the sports sector in general.


A no-holds-barred takedown of the corporatisation of Cricket Australia that resulted in what agree was a disastrous and failed central contract negotiation with their players. The author is Geoff Lemon, who you might remember for his similarly savage excoriation of the Channel Nine broadcast booth. If you don't remember, it's well worth a re-read with the Ashes approaching.