What is the spirit of the game?

What is the spirit of the game?

​In the final of the Asian Champions Trophy (Hockey), played between Pakistan and India, when the ball touched the foot of an Indian player unnoticed by the referee (a penalty offence) the Pakistani team appealed. When the referee referred it to the review umpire, the Indian player immediately went to the referee, explained that the ball had indeed touched his foot and requested that Pakistan not have to use up their last referral.

Grant Elliott offered a hand to Dale Steyn at the end of the Cricket World Cup semi-final.

Nikki Hamblin, help her competitor, Abbey D’Agostino in the Olympics 5,000 meter semi-final after they both tripped, but Nikki refused to continue alone and helped Abbey through the rest of the race.

We love these stories, the press love these stories, we applaud such “sportsmanship”.

So why, if we  praise such things do we conversely support outright cheating and clearly unsportsmanlike behaviours?

The NRL and UK Super League have an instant yellow card for punching, but international Rugby League does not (although it still illegal). In a recent game between England and France there was a big brawl. The English coach explains… “There was just a bit of emotion early in the game. They play the national anthems, they’re in front of their own crowd…a little incident happened. It just happens sometimes. It’s body contact.” Is there not a world of difference between a hard, but legal tackle and punching a player? Both can be used by players to express their ‘emotions’ and both are ‘body contact’. Why is it reasonable to ‘bring back the biff’?

How often do we see a rugby player coming out of ruck or tackle push the tackled player back into the ground. Dan Coles has a habit of this and the commentators pass it off as a joke, rather than condemn it not only as illegal, but for being clearly unsportsmanlike. The same commentators who praise the likes of Grant Elliott.

Is the skill in cricket to be able to bowl, bat and field with better technical and strategic skill than the opposition, while understanding and exploiting the strengths and weaknesses of opposition players? Then why is sledging, an attempt to bully and emotionally overpower the opposition not using the skills or tactics of cricket, tolerated and often praised?

Ben Stokes from England was found guilty in a recent test with Bangladesh of breaching Article 2.1.1 of the ICC Code of Conduct for Players and Player Support Personnel. This breach related to “conduct that is contrary to the spirit of the game”. This after he was repeatedly warned to stop “verbal engagements” with the batsman. What is the “spirit of the game” if you are allowed to verbally intimidate the opposition, but only to a point – at what point is that bullying behaviour no longer in the spirit of the game? And the English captains response – “I do find it a little bit frustrating… both Sabbir and Stokesy are very competitive cricketers. To me, people love it. That’s what people watch.” Is that right or do we watch a contest between the skills and tactics of ball against bat?

The rules of football state that a “A player is cautioned and shown the yellow card if he commits any of the following… unsporting behaviour… dissent by word or action.” So how is it that footballers can harass and intimidate referees as they do and not be yellow carded? 

Is it that I have just missed the point? 

So when the rules of football and cricket talk about “unsporting behaviour” and “the spirit of the game”, the boundaries of such include bullying and verbal abuse?

There are big differences between playing well, playing hard, playing to the edge of the rules, playing to win, and using bullying, intimidation and aggression, skills that are not defined as part of the skills of the game, to beat the opposition. 

Are they rules or are they just guidelines? What have I missunderstood?


The Black Caps… how important are a few individuals?

The Black Caps… how important are a few individuals?

The Black Caps have struggled in test series in India and South Africa in a way that we have not seen for a couple of years. Have we become complacent in recent times that the Black Caps will just keep getting better? Is this a reasonable expectation? Did the influence of a few people, Brendon McCullum, Shane Bond and Kane Williamson, have such an impact across other’s performances? Or is this just a wee slip up, having faced possibly the top test bowling side in South Africa and India, the top test nation, both in the comfort of their own backyards?

For a short period we had close to the best batsman in the world, a captain who had a strong and clear influence and the the respect of his international peers, and arguably the best bowling coach in the world. Having lost 2 out of 3, Kane Williamson is left holding the fort, but can one top performer influence an entire team? Feels a bit like the days of Daniel Vettori and the one man cricket team.  

Sports in New Zealand sporadically over achieve, recently golf and para-swimming, with star athletes who are able to shine in relative isolation. One person is all the difference in individual sports, but in a team sport their influence is limited, they need support. The NZ cricket team in the late eighties had Crowe, Hadlee and Ian Smith, and over achieved. But once Crowe was on his own, the results didn’t continue. 

When you see the performances of some of the individuals, it  is impossible to know the extent to which that performance can be attributed to the influence of others, be they captains, coaches or peer players. You may have been in teams, sport and other, where a single top performer is useful, but 2 or 3 can really set the tone and change the team’s outcomes. Is this is what has happened to the Black Caps?

Colonial past dominates New Zealand sport, but for how long?

Colonial past dominates New Zealand sport, but for how long?

New Zealand’s sporting landscape is dominated by ‘commonwealth’ sports. The sports we read about, are encouraged to play and watch on television – rugby, netball, cricket, league and football.
The fastest growing ethnicities in New Zealand are Asian – Chinese, Korean, Indian and in terms of growth rate, Philipino.The majors sports from these countries include table tennis, badminton, volleyball, baseball, taekwondo, basketball, hockey and of course, football being the world game. 

How and when will this translate to changes in our sporting landscape?

Sport in New Zealand is delivered by many entities – formal sports organisations such as NZ Rugby and Netball New Zealand; schools; community sports organisations, including regional sports trusts and churches among others; commercial providers; and local authorities with a focus on facilities.

The major sports, with a relentless drive for growth, will try and encourage these ethnic groups to participate, but is this sensible and efficient? How well positioned are the codes popular in these countries to support development – Table Tennis NZ, Badminton NZ, Baseball NZ? NZ Cricket has one Indian player out of 21 contracted players – 4.5%,  which nicely represents the Indian population in New Zealand, 4% as at 2013 census. But does it represent the importance of cricket in the Indian community? This is not a criticism of NZ Cricket, rather an example of possible change. Is hockey in a similar position? South Korea has hosted a FIFA World Cup, reached the final four and made the last nine FIFA world cup finals tournaments, but how representative are South Koreans in our national squads?

Sport New Zealand’s community sport strategy specifically talks about improving reach to underrepresented communities and has introduced trageted populations funding, which is now largely focused on Auckland – this is good. As Sport NZ’s primary measure is absolute participation numbers and given it is easier to retain than attract participants, will the funding continue to follow the strategy? Funding requires organisation. You need to know how to attract funders, have the desire and motivation to seek funding and the capability to deliver; therefore, in the first instance it will largely be up to the incumbent entities to drive any change. Aktive Auckland Sport and Recreation, and others will need to hold the line.

Schools will respond to demographic changes. Whether changes are driven by forward-thinking heads and boards of trustees, or central strategy directives will dictate the pace and impact.

The commercial providers will follow the money and as such may drive change the quickest in the short term.

Local authorities have to operate to longer timeframes and the recent development of multi-purpose facilities should provide some flexibility. Auckland Council, with the largest new immigrant population, have a complexity of plans that include addressing these changes, but will the menagerie of sports organisations in Auckland be able to coordinate effectively?

And then there is high performance. Will we see a day when New Zealand becomes a major force in badminton, volleyball or baseball driven by Asian ethnicities? Table tennis is dominated by new Chinese in New Zealand, with one player achieving Olympic qualifying standard, but lacked support from NZOC – disappointing, but reflects the the current focus. High performance is largely not about absolute participation numbers, rather it is lead by the quality of the organisation and administrators, and the development of world class coaching structures and high performance programmes. Track cycling is a recent example in New Zealand of a minority sport with relatively low participation, that has built a world class, high performance capability and performed accordingly. For this to happen, a collective with the interest, passion and commitment needs to lead. Realistically, how important is high performance sport to developing immigrant communities – for the Chinese playing table tennis it clearly is important?

The short term opportunities appear to be with cricket (maybe hockey) and football. Well established sports who will need to reach beyond their traditional base. In the long term it will come down to the motivation and skill of administrators in what are today minor sports and community organisations funding strategy and delivery.

Funding and watching the Olympics and the All Blacks – do we get a fair deal?

Funding and watching the Olympics and the All Blacks – do we get a fair deal?

High Performance Sport New Zealand (HPSNZ) provides around $34m p.a. to targeted sports (30+), the New Zealand Olympics Committee (NZOC) and New Zealand Paralympics, in addition to $21m to support specific athletes, coaches and officials. Altogether the funding is $55m p.a.
The opening of HPSNZ current strategic plan is a quote from the Minister of Sport – “When we see New Zealanders competing and winning on the world stage it unites us as a nation, and inspires youngsters to get out and participate in sport”.

Followed by the first paragraph of the introduction – “The government invests in high performance sport for the many benefits it brings to the whole country, including the national pride we feel when we see New Zealanders standing on the podium.”

The conundrum discussed is that the benefit of New Zealanders “seeing” our sporting achievements is diminished as the majority of the opportunities to view these sports is either on pay television or not televised at all.

Is it an indictment of our social system that government funded sport, for the purpose of seeing ‘New Zealand competing and winning on the world stage’ is not freely available to all to view?

Is this situation any different than other part state funded activities? Department of Conservation fund campgrounds, but without the expense of camping equipment, camp fees etc. you can’t utilise them? School trips, if you can’t pay you can’t go, but isn’t education supposed to be free?

Is there something special about sport that we should consider it in a different light to education and access to public spaces?

What if there was additional cost associated with providing free-to-air sport? Would we be happy if the government had to pay broadcast rights to ensure sports were free on TV?

There are also questions of what we believe are events of national significance – we mustn’t forget that the professional All Blacks do not receive government funding. Is another All Blacks test against Argentina more significant than a Ranfurly Shield challenge, the Black Sox competing in the world champs (generally not broadcast), Valerie Adams winning Diamond League events (lucky if we get a sound bite on the 6 o’clock news)? Are the ANZAC commemorations at Gallipoli nationally significant, perhaps these should be televised and compete for the same dollars as sport?

I believe the argument comes down to two issues.

Sport is an important part of New Zealand’s culture, as such it is generally accepted that public funding be available to sport. But, what is the value of ‘feel good’, ‘punching above our weight’, especially in sports with low or restricted participation, rowing and equestrian for example? Funding for participation is easier to justify, but how strong is the correlation between high performance and participation? One of the fastest growing sports in New Zealand is volleyball and we don’t figure on the world stage. Football has consistently had high participation, but our global performance is variable at best. Gym Sports, again high participation yet no high performance programme, it is focused purely on participation.

Secondly, do we want to nationalise the televising of sports events? What is the cost and is that a better way to build ‘national pride’ than say being proud of our global leadership in social justice as we once were, the way we treat those in society with less, the way we were prepared to take a stand on the global stage rather than following the lead of the more powerful nations? Is there not a touch of state propaganda in a nationalising approach?

It is easy to hark back to the good old days, but rugby is professional and the All Blacks are a commercial venture, and if you want to win medals at the Olympics it costs significant money.
Fully professionally funded sports, such as Rugby, the answer is obvious – they are businesses, operating in a commercial environment and should remain so.
Olympic sports that rely heavily on public funding are more complicated and need to be considered in the round with the rest of our social system, including education, health, conservation, the arts and so forth.

I for one do get a buzz out of New Zealanders winning, but would feel a little uneasy that public money is spent or legislation enacted to enable my viewing of this in order to create a sense of national euphoria.

I would suggest that despite the restricted access that pay TV naturally creates, there are opportunities through limited free-to-air TV, social media and general media coverage to view New Zealanders winning on the world stage. This will only improve as the diversity of media organisations increases providing access to more and more sport, including the likes of softball and others which we excel at, but perhaps aren’t as commercially viable.

Any funding that gets people active and engaged is a good thing!

Should NZ Rugby divest 7s (this is not a dig at NZR)?

Should NZ Rugby divest 7s (this is not a dig at NZR)?

New Zealand and Fiji have dominated the Rugby 7s scene since it’s inception. During this time the All Blacks and NZ Rugby have becoming increasingly dominate in the performance, development and organisation of Rugby 15s.

The breadth and depth of the other countries playing international 7s has been improving rapidly,
especially from non-traditional rugby nations, USA and Kenya for example.

Rugby 7s appearance at the Olympics has given the code another stage to perform on and gain promotion. It would have to be argued whether the Olympics will now be considered the pinnacle of 7s, or like other recents Olympic sports with well established international competition, it’s just another tournament on the circuit.

Rugby 7s is becoming more and more specialised in terms of skills, strength and conditioning needs and natural physical attributes from top players. Rugby 7s has evolved significantly, both tactically on the field and in player preparation and development. We see that in the challenge that players from 15s and other codes have had making the shift (except SBW, naturally!).

A lot has been written about the performance of the men’s 7s team in Rio. The main culprits raised are either the coach (his training methods and respect from the team) or NZ Rugby’s policy regarding selection/availability of NZR contracted players.

There will of course be a significant review in NZR following Rio (there would have been regardless of the outcome), but should NZR consider divesting themselves of 7s?

Would a separate organisation enable 7s to compete more effectively for participants at all levels? Would they be able to sell themselves as a different code than ‘rugby’, with fewer collisions and therefore safer, definitely valuing different physical attributes?

Could a 7s organisation align closely with touch? Touch New Zealand is a separate organisation from NZR. Touch and has a very strong social / casual following, with significant play-for-pay participation – good money for organisations involved.

Academy programmes are forcing players to make code selections earlier and earlier, and with NZRs emphasis on 15s the best players are naturally funneled into 15s to detriment of 7s. As a unique organisation could 7s create a more attractive pathway than the NZR can offer today?

Will there continue to be less-and-less player cross-over, or with the tempo of 15s increasing might we see the two codes converge again, in which case is NZ better placed to manage this convergence under a single organisation?

The international 7s scene is quite different than 15s, both the competition structures, competing countries and therefore the broadcast and sponsorship makeup. Would a separate organisation be able to manage this environment better than the professional machine of NZR?

NZR is a very professional machine able to promote the growth of community sport, develop the professional sport and attract great money. Given this muscle, does it make sense to consider diverging the two codes and allowing 7s to promote itself uniquely, or would 7s struggle without the might of NZR?

Netball in New Zealand, responding well to the challenges?

Netball in New Zealand, responding well to the challenges?

In the previous netball post we raised questions regarding the end of the ANZ Championship and moves from Netball Australia to dominate the professional club scene. Since then there have been strong performances from New Zealand teams in the ANZ Champs, although we will have to see how well they compete in the final series, and a great finish to the new Beko league.

Netball Australia have started to show their hand, with suggestions they will not impose limits on the  number of international players in their new competition, aiming to make it the premier club competition. 

Netball NZ has appointed Jennie Wylie as the new CEO. Jennie has been with NNZ for 7 years as the head of finance and administration. A truly passionate netball person with strong corporate and finance experience. Steve Lancaster, the head of High Performance has resigned and is returning to rugby.

Is the appointment of Jennie Wylie a good move by the board? With a clear love of netball, including a strong connection with the netball community it would appear so. She is the first CEO since netball entered the professional age, to come from within the ranks, a signal that netball supports not just player, but administration pathways? Her big challenges will be responding to Netball Australia, ensuring the new Elite League is marketed well, funded well and accepted by the netball community and general sports fans, and the ongoing drive for community sport participation.

Is the need for a new head of HP going to be an opportunity for the CEO to appoint a netball knowledgable person into this key role?

Netball Australia signaling no limits on international players has got to be a concern for netball New Zealand, England and possibly Jamaica.  Should New Zealand follow suit, or take a NZ Rugby protectionist stance? In theory players could play their club netball in Australia and still represent their country, but losing good players from local competion will affect pathway development and create complications (and expense) in national team development. Is creating a competitive international club environment  good for the development of netball internationally, or will it harm the cooperative culture? Is there enough money to create a meaningful market as we see in football, rugby, cricket etc., or will it damage player and competition development?

We are seeing big changes in netball, the biggest changes since the development of the ANZ Championship. Jennie Wylie has a big job ahead, but with a supportive board and the strength of the netball community, the sport should evolve successfully.

Russian athletes guilty until proven innocent – reasonable or a travesty of justice?

Russian athletes guilty until proven innocent – reasonable or a travesty of justice?

WADA, the IAAF and the IOC are united that Russian athletes should, by default, be banned from competing at the Rio Olympics.
IOC president Thomas Bach says proven, clean,  Russian athletes could take part under their own flag.
IAAF says that on an ‘exceptional basis’, clean athletes can compete as neutrals.
WADA also agrees with athletes competing on an exception-only basis, but believes they should be able to compete under their own nations flag.
Valerie Adams says ‘no way’ to Russian athletes and you wouldn’t mess with her! She, possibly more than anyone has been directly affected by drug cheats, although it was a Belarussian that cheated her out of gold in London.
A report commissioned by WADA and a German documentary provide compelling evidence that there has been state-supported doping, possibly to the point of altering test results – clearly there are issues that can’t be denied. The Russians claim that with their administrative changes, these issue are being addressed.
A wee funny, the Russian government have appointed Putin to manage the fallout with the international community –  a bit like asking the lion to negotiate with the zebras!

Should all athletes from one country be punished for the sins of some and the clear wrong-doings of their administration? Is it reasonable that proven drug cheats from the past can compete when known, innocent athletes are banned?

Do the various organisations have the right view, let the athletes back on a case-by-case basis when proven clean? How will this work in practice – IAAF say that do not have the ability to test everyone comprehensively? Pass one test and you’re in? Does this make a mockery of the ban and just suggest  an IAAF power play?

Surely those that do qualify should be able to compete under their national flag. IAAF administrators appear to have forgotten that the sport is about the athletes, not the organisations and their politics. 

The IOC claim any Russian athletes must be ‘[a member] of the team of the Russian Olympic Committee because only a national Olympic committee can enter athletes… there are no teams of international federations’. Politics with the IAAF?, or has the IOC just forgotten there is a team of refugees from different countries competing under the Olympic flag?

The WADA  head says that there is need for a ‘cultural change’ in Russia. Is separation and banishment the answer?

Andoora, Argentina, Bolivia and Ukraine have all been declared non-compliant in their testing, why can they  still compete? Kenya has been put under the same regime as Russia by the IOC, although this is claimed to be due to a lack of testing facility in Kenya, rather than systematic doping.

Does this raise the question that all international testing should be under the control of WADA? Give them some real teeth as they struggle for relevance at times.

The Olympics are founded on the concept of international unity, does this decision put justice over tradition as some have suggested?