COMMENT

The sporting year of 2018, boiled down to a quatrain:

What to do/ with the year in review/ when your view of the year/ is the year of review?

OK, it might not be Keats, it might not even be William McGonagall, but it is mercifully short, which is more than you can say about the reviews and reports that have landed with dull thuds across the desks of sports administrators this year.

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By the time the Heron report into cycling had dropped there was such collective review fatigue among the rapidly dwindling sports journalism corps that it had all the impact of an Act Party press release.

This was perplexing to Sport New Zealand and its subsidiary High Performance Sport NZ, who felt there was enough meat in the Heron report to lead the sports news agenda for multiple days. So disappointed were they by the lack of heavy lifting done by the sports journalism profession, they used the revelation vacuum to write a carefully worded op-ed under the name of HPSNZ chief executive Michael Scott, which the Herald published.

As Scott preaches to the national sporting organisations, which are largely run by recycled administrators, he will find more receptive audiences than the negligible amount of unique browsers who clicked on the article, but for those who missed it, the key line was this:

"The system is not broken."

Without wanting to take credit for concepts that are self-evident, I'd suggest that line was at least in part a response to a column penned on these pages in August headlined: "Why NZ sport is fundamentally broken."

In his attempt to refute this, Scott made the now clichéd mistake of measuring non-brokenness (my word) with Olympic medals, when in fact it was the blind pursuit of these trinkets that has led to a wave of athlete resistance.

In fairness to Scott, he did acknowledge this when he wrote, "There is absolutely no doubt we need to strike a better balance between winning on the world stage and the welfare of athletes, coaches and others working within the high performance system".

New Zealandcoach Anthony Peden congratulates Ethan Mitchell, Eddie Dawkins and Sam Webster on silver in the mens sprint at Rio Olympics Games 2016. Photo / Photosport.co.nz
New Zealandcoach Anthony Peden congratulates Ethan Mitchell, Eddie Dawkins and Sam Webster on silver in the mens sprint at Rio Olympics Games 2016. Photo / Photosport.co.nz

Medals were an understandable crutch to lean on, however, because every other piece of sporting literature produced in New Zealand this year, and there have been a lot, paints High Performance Sport NZ and its Millennium Centre minions as heartless bureaucrats who treat humans as a collection of bar graphs.

Yep, mark 2018 down as the year of athletes would go all Howard Beale in Network on us: "I'm a human being godammit! My life has value… I'm as mad as hell and I'm not going to take this anymore."

They've got the paperwork to back them up now.

The Heron Report was just one in a chain of reports and reviews that are only now showing signs of abating. Earlier this month the Cottrell report into Elite Athletes' Rights and Welfare was made public.

It was a thorough piece of work, thick enough to keep the Kinleith pulp and paper mill workers in overtime, with an interesting set of footnotes. The remarkably basic conclusions, however, could have been reached at a nominal cost using a simple eyes and ears test: treat athletes as humans, not pawns in the medal and title-hunting game.

While the conclusions might have been beyond obvious, it required somebody of Stephen Cottrell's stature in the sports law fraternity to give them weight.

This report did the job then, but it came with a jarring (read: completely unnecessary) note. Cottrell stated that New Zealand Rugby and New Zealand Cricket have demonstrated that a player welfare and high-performance programme can work in mutual inclusivity. While this might be strictly true, it takes a special sort of 15-man myopia to overlook a by-product of systems that make young athletes feel bulletproof.

Thankfully we don't have to rewind too far to recall then-ASB CEO Barbara Chapman using her speech at the 2016 Rugby Awards to strike a blow against the prevailing macho culture within rugby after a year in which athletes ranging from inexperienced NPC player Losi Filipo to ultra-experienced All Black Aaron Smith made exceptionally poor decisions.

This is also a sport with an important review of its own on the cusp of tabling, this one looking at the unholy staffroom brawl that has become schoolboy rugby.

In case you missed it, here is a brief rundown of reviews, both internal and external, carried out by either national sporting organisations or independent counsel.

Triathlon New Zealand: Internal review
Key findings: Unknown, but almost certainly would support the commonly held belief that triathlon has quickly morphed from a blue-riband to a basket-case sport. High-performance director Mark Elliott (ex-cycling), resigned suddenly in September.

Rowing New Zealand: Internal review
Key findings: Unknown, but would almost certainly support the commonly held belief that rowing has sacrificed humanity and empathy on the altar of winning at all costs. High-performance director Alan Cotter, a long-time employee of Rowing NZ, resigned suddenly in August.

Netball New Zealand: Mackinnon review
Key findings: The Silver Ferns Commonwealth games campaign was a disaster that was a long time in the making. The players lost confidence in the coaching team six months out from the games on the Gold Coast and the performances reflected that. Ironically, coach Janine Southby, who resigned in the days leading up to the review's release, had tried and failed to instil a player-led culture.

New Zealand's Netball coach Janine Southby holds her head up after a major loss in the semifinal Netball game against Australia at the 2018 Gold Coast Commonwealth Games. Photo / File.
New Zealand's Netball coach Janine Southby holds her head up after a major loss in the semifinal Netball game against Australia at the 2018 Gold Coast Commonwealth Games. Photo / File.

New Zealand Rugby:Secondary schools rugby review

Key findings:

Unknown, but bet your mortgage on this – NZR will want more control of the schoolboy game.

New Zealand Football: Muir review
Key findings: That the culture within NZ Football, particularly at the high-performance end, was utterly toxic, with Football Ferns coach and technical director Andreas Heraf singled out. "The harassment was not sexual in any form and it wasn't assault. But it was raised voices, it was yelling, it was intimidation, it was repeated," Muir wrote. "He offended and humiliated the players and a number of staff." Heraf is gone, as is the man who was fingered as his chief enabler, CEO Andy Martin.

Football Ferns' coach Andreas Heraf addressing the media after the International Friendly Women's Football between Football Ferns vs Japan. Photo / Photosport.co.nz
Football Ferns' coach Andreas Heraf addressing the media after the International Friendly Women's Football between Football Ferns vs Japan. Photo / Photosport.co.nz

Cycling New Zealand: Heron review

Key findings:

This was a doozy. QC Michael Heron concluded that Cycling NZ fostered a culture of bullying, poor behaviour, lack of accountability and turned a blind eye to an inappropriate relationship. The independent review labelled the NSOs high-performance programme as dysfunctional. Ouch. The clean-out has been impressive, from former rowing administrator turned CNZ CEO Andrew Matheson (though, curiously, not initially), to controversial sprint coach Anthony Peden, to any number of staff at the Cambridge-based high-performance centre.

Sport NZ: Cottrell report
Key findings: As discussed earlier, this box-ticking review tidily summed up what was obvious from the sport-specific reviews – that the welfare of athletes must be placed in the middle of the room when pursuing high-performance goals.

Hockey NZ: Dew report
Key findings: To come, but the whispers around the traps is that Maria Dew, of Bankside Chambers, will substantiate claims that long-time coach Mark Hager has created a negative culture within the women's Black Sticks. If that is the case, this is potentially the most awkward of all the findings because there are still many people within hockey circles who believe Hager is an exceptional coach and the unwitting victim of the sweeping athlete empowerment movement.

Black Sticks press conference to announce naming of FIH World League Final in Auckland today. Pictured are Anita Punt, Mark Hager and Gemma Flynn. Photo / Photosport.co.nz
Black Sticks press conference to announce naming of FIH World League Final in Auckland today. Pictured are Anita Punt, Mark Hager and Gemma Flynn. Photo / Photosport.co.nz

Of course, therein lay the nub of many of the issues: in prioritising athlete welfare, do you sacrifice some elements of high-performance? It's an argument as old as the Tour de France is long and despite the hundreds of pages devoted to the topic in New Zealand this year, we are yet to reach consensus.

We can agree on one inescapable conclusion, surely: when reviewing the myriad 2018 reviews as a whole, you can see that the athletes have been broken, ergo the system is too.