As the Downer New Zealand Masters Games prepares to celebrate its 30th birthday, Zaryd Wilson takes a look at how Whanganui's biggest event is being re-shaped behind the scenes.

Sometimes the lens needs just a slight adjustment to sharpen the focus.

Certainly that is what organisers of the 2019 Downer New Zealand Masters Games hope to achieve — but in more than one way a shift of focus has been unavoidable.

A milestone like a 30th anniversary brings a sense of nostalgia which can act like a shot in the arm for any event.

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And that is much needed following a 2017 Games in which participation numbers continued to fall and ended with Whanganui District Council bailing out the Whanganui Events Trust when it emerged from the event unable to pay creditors.

Not quite a crisis but enough to make everyone sit up and take notice.

The board stepped down and council loaned about $50,000 to the trust to pay suppliers.

The council - which owns 49 per cent of the Master Games (The Whanganui NZ Masters Games Trust own the other 51 per cent) took back some control and a re-boot for 2019 has been underway since.

A new board has been appointed as a revamped trust - now debt-free with money in the bank - prepares to run the 30th New Zealand Masters Games in Whanganui next year from February 1-10.

While the New Zealand Masters Games remains Whanganui's biggest regular event, it is no secret it has been in decline for about a decade now, with participation numbers falling with each event.

The 2017 event attracted 4636 participants, 300 fewer than in 2015.

There's something for everyone at the Downer New Zealand Masters Games.
There's something for everyone at the Downer New Zealand Masters Games.

Arthur Klapp organised the first games in 1989 and has since gone on to run many of New Zealand's biggest sporting events and is well versed in the trajectory of events.

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He says three things can happen to events over time.

They can fade away. They can stabilise.

"Or you probably need to make some changes and it takes off again," he says.

The Downer New Zealand Masters Games is banking on the latter.

"Any of those things is possible but the fact that it's still going is remarkable really," Klapp says.

It also must not be forgotten that while numbers in recent times have been falling, 2017 still attracted more than three times what the very first games did in 1989.

The concept for the New Zealand Masters Games was created by Rex Hendry, Terry Fleming - Whanganui District Council staff at the time - and councillor Paul Mitchell.

"They saw the Australian Masters Games and came up with this idea of doing it in Whanganui," Klapp says.

"It was terrific because it was a really good concept."

The idea was to give Whanganui both an economic boost and showcase the city as a "go ahead sporting place".

Klapp was brought on board to run the thing and on what he says was a "shoestring budget" the 1989 games attracted 1650 participants.

"There was clearly enough in it to see that it could be really successful," he says.

And it was.

Numbers doubled for the next one with only a few extra sports and reached numbers over 8000 around the turn of the century.

"It just took off really quickly," Klapp says.

"What we did manage to do was build the social element and having the games village has always worked really well."

The games became an annual fixture with the host city alternating between Whanganui and Dunedin.

Klapp says it's "incredibly satisfying" to see the event still going after three decades.

"It should never be underestimated the demands putting on an event like this places on the sports and the individuals because it's still very much dependent on volunteer assistance to make it happen."

That demand is now firmly on the shoulders of games manager Tasha Paladin, who just 18 months after leaving Ruapehu Alpine Lifts as commercial manager finds herself with a huge challenge on her shoulders.

"I've just come down one mountain and now I'm climbing back up another," she says.

Tasha Paladin has taken on the task of revamping the Downer New Zealand Masters Games. Photo/ Stuart Munro
Tasha Paladin has taken on the task of revamping the Downer New Zealand Masters Games. Photo/ Stuart Munro

"It's quite an extraordinary and daunting task ahead given it's such and iconic event.

"Personally I feel event more pressure because the first games manager, Arthur Klapp, is actually bit of a hero of mine. He's an absolute legend in terms of major New Zealand events."

Paladin knows there's a lot riding on the 2019 Games but says she's going to "give it my best shot".

She's been careful balance the need to make changes without completely overhauling what generally works.

The games village will remain at the War Memorial Centre - despite the move from Springvale Park being criticised - but it will be tweaked.

Entertainment and food will have a much stronger local focus with and the stage will be shifted outside resembling what was loved about Springvale Park.

"I actually wanted to hear from everybody that was involved and find out what they wanted. I've picked up most things and made some compromises along the way," she said.

"That is one thing. We are a host city and host cites celebrate and showcase what they've got."

Another major coup for the games this year has been securing Downer as the naming rights sponsor to help with the financial situation.

Ambassadors have been brought in, with cycling legend Ron Cheatley; former netballer Cindy Hoskin, who has represented Whanganui in several sports; 61-cap Silver Fern and Whanganui-born Jodi Brown; and former All Black turned Whanganui police officer Glen Osborne all charged with promoting the event.

The social element is a big part of the Masters Games.
The social element is a big part of the Masters Games.

At the games launch in July, Cheatley encouraged the city to get behind the Games to "create a spectacle that visitors enjoy so much that they all want to return".

There's even a youth ambassador in Jamie Maybery - who while too young to compete - is there to have a future focus on the event.

Already there's a buzz about the 2019 Games and it looks like the event will grow for the first time in years.

Early bird entries outstripped the 2017 Games, just over 2400 entered the event before the October cut-off compared with 2032 in 2017 and entries continue to track ahead of previous years.

"That's a testament to Tasha Paladin and her team," Whanganui mayor Hamish McDouall says.

He says the 2017 Games did try to innovate "but suffered from timing with the New Zealand Masters Games in Auckland".

Getting the evolution of the Games right over time requires experimentation.

"You build on what's been successful and if something doesn't work you try the next one," McDouall says.

"I expect most things will work. It's a pretty strong brand."

Whanganui mayor Hamish McDouall will be hoping to claim another Master Games medal when he takes to the cricket filed in February.
Whanganui mayor Hamish McDouall will be hoping to claim another Master Games medal when he takes to the cricket filed in February.

There are just over 50 events at the 2019 games and this time around there has been a strong focus on have the sporting bodies for each particular code be involved.

Sport Whanganui's community sport advisor Ross Cronshaw has been tasked with that.

He liaises with the different sports organisations and national bodies "especially at the grassroots level".

"We're trying to reassure them that we are working with them as much as possible and trying to build a relationship with them."

Changes have been made to the game village at the War Memorial Centre following feedback from the 2017 event. Image/ Sophie Ross
Changes have been made to the game village at the War Memorial Centre following feedback from the 2017 event. Image/ Sophie Ross

By working with the various sports' own bodies the Master Games can be promoted through sport clubs and calendars around New Zealand.

"I mean, I know basketball. But I don't know motocross, so there's no point in me going in an telling the motocross guys how to run the event," Cronshaw says.

"You generally let the codes run the event how they see fit and we'll help in anyway we can."

McDouall says the Masters Games is vital for Whanganui.

A hotelier told him once that while cultural events brought people into town it was sporting events which really made a town money.

"It's a big boost for Whanganui," he says.

And so he and Paladin are urging locals to get behind it in anyway they can so to secure it remains a jewel in Whanganui's crown for many more decades.

"I'd encourage everybody to take a look. I know there was criticism of going to the War Memorial Hall but I'd encourage people to give it a second look. My message for the locals would be to get behind it."

Paladin says these Games are also about leaving a legacy — giving the event a big enough boost carry it into the future. She encourages people to get involved. Even with a month to go there is time to prepare for one of the many events.

"Or you can do it as a supporter," she says. "Or you can come and get involved behind the scenes — but even if not, being part of it is also about welcoming the visitors to our city."

*For more information visit www.nzmg.com

Whanganui is hosting the 30th anniversary NZ Masters Games
Whanganui is hosting the 30th anniversary NZ Masters Games