As the bus drives away from Christchurch and rolls past undulating hills where pine trees strut out like bottle brushes, skims past vineyards of Marlborough and hits the sea-wrapped sunny Nelson, the secret of how this small country manages to produce Olympians and good sportspersons reveals itself. Rural New Zealand is where the country unwraps its natural splendour and provides a unique window to its soul.
Nelson has about 45,000 people, the adjacent Tasman has about the same and sandwiched between the two is Saxton Oval, a large park with facilities for football and athletics, and other sports including cricket, where West Indies will face Ireland on Monday. But it’s not just cricket that one is interested in but to try answering the question how this nation produces world-class athletes. On one side, hills envelop the region and down the hill, across the aisle, the Tasman Sea shimmers.
“You tell me, how you can’t get out there and play sport in this setting?” says Nigel Muir, CEO of Sport Tasman. Nigel says that this region has produced 24 Olympians. Mind boggles. But it can’t just be the warm weather, the sea and the hills that do it, surely?
A community feeling
It’s all about the community building, the central philosophy in this region, says Muir. Consider this stat from Muir: One out of three New Zealanders, across the country in fact, are involved in some sort of voluntary activity in sports. Someone could be cleaning the dishes of a sports meet, someone will prepare the ground, another will drive the kids and organisers around, and leading sportspersons will pitch in with a free coaching or a motivational talk. Imagine what it could do a 10-year old hearing from an Olympian about the path that lies ahead. Everyone has a personal stake in the entire enterprise: Parents, teachers, kids, senior citizens, and facilitators like Muir hold this interesting tapestry together.
All this throws up a fear: Don’t the parents end up putting up pressure? May be not in the decades gone by but in this world that we live, even in New Zealand , and especially here in fact as they have now seen success? They do. “Of course they do, things have changed,” says Muir. Here is where the decision makers in this country are trying to do something different to tackle that issue.
A poster plastered in the administration office at the Saxton Oval tells that story. Happy smiling kids, hundreds of them, are captured in a festival atmosphere in the beach. A sporting event has just finished by the look of the things and all have a blissful look as the camera swoops on them from top. The thing is no one knows who won, who lost.
“Deliberately done. Look you might be a great potential sportsman but we here are looking out for the others. There might be one percent who can probably have a career in sports but what about the rest?
“What we trying to do is use sports to produce people who are happier and turn out to be good human beings. What’s the point of life if you don’t do that?”
It’s an interesting philosophy but does it also mean it could hurt the chances of producing top athletes. And more importantly, in the here and now, is that the difference between the neighbouring countries Australia and New Zealand?
Aussies love winners; an immense stress is on success. “The amount of money Australia put on producing high performance athletes is a lot more than us,” Muir says. “It’s an interesting thing and something that is catching up here as well. The right thing to do is find a right balance but you know it does get difficult.”
Another official I speak to talks about an interesting tussle that goes on in the region. Some plots on the Richmond hills are privately-held properties. Especially, on the hill that looks down upon Saxton.
“We tried talking to the private holders to see if they can offer some plot for the good of the community.” They didn’t? “Interestingly, some of them did. But the hotels in the area had a problem. Their fear is if we convert those properties for accommodation, their business could be hurt.”
The council’s plan is to try bring down the cost for people and for those who come from other parts of the country, to play here. “If we can offer them accommodation, then the cost of their entry becomes that much cheaper, doesn’t it? We can then host more tournaments across age-groups and hopefully that can kick on something. But that’s something for the future.”
In the here and now, to produce such top athletes, and importantly, to offer a greater sense of purpose to the community at large is quite amazing.