New Zealand Sport chief says ‘targeted approach’ key to Olympic success
Nation similar in population has won over four times more medals than Ireland since 2000
Annalise Murphy competes in the Rio Olympics in 2016, where she won two silver medals. Photograph: Benoit Tessier/Reuters
Political will is a phrase chief executive of Sport New Zealand Peter Miskimmin uses frequently. In Dublin tonight to deliver the keynote address at this year’s Federation of Irish Sport Conference in Trinity College Dublin, his lecture Sport: The New Zealand Way. Grassroots to Greats. What Can Ireland Learn? is provocative enough. So it should be.
Miskimmin arrives speaking a similar language to many sports administrators but New Zealand have become a plucky little nation of winners. Their medals at Olympic Games has begun to eclipse Ireland despite a similar population of over four million people. Time to rethink?
Since Sydney 2000, Ireland has won one medal, zero medals, three medals, six medals and two medals in Rio, where the team ranked 62nd on the medals table. Rio was Ireland’s biggest ever team with 77 athletes.
Since 2000, New Zealand have won 50 Olympic medals in both the summer and winter Olympic Games, or over four times that of Ireland.
In Rio alone New Zealand won 18 medals, four of them gold, nine silver and five bronze surpassing a previous record haul of 13 from the London Games in 2012. Their Rio team consisted of 100 women and 99 men, the first time ever there were more women.
Ireland in Rio: two silver medals from Annalise Murphy in sailing and the O’Donovan brothers Paul and Gary in rowing.
“We started in 2007-08,” says Miskimmin. “We increased our [medal] tally in Beijing. We increased it to 13 in London and to 18 in Rio. We had the political will to be able to make pretty tough decisions and to target the resources to where we believe we are going to get the best outcome.
“Strangely enough, that actually lifted the performance and expectation of all sports around what high performance (HP) looked like to the point where we have gone from six sports winning in London to nine winning in Rio. We are very proud of that.”
The language is of aligning community sport with high performance, importantly of physical literacy at school and the political will to fund and support tough calls.
New Zealand athletes are not inherently better than Irish athletes but Sport NZ seem decisively better at picking what sports their athletes are good at doing.
“We have a targeted approach. We do not give money to all sports,” explains Miskimmin. “We used to have only six sports that we targeted. Now we are up to 12 and if you can’t demonstrate that you can get on a podium . . . it’s a very unfair system but it’s what we do.
“We are a small country and our resources are pretty small,” he adds. “We have a very small gene pool with around 4½ million people. The breadth of sports winning is an indication that the approach we have taken is right.”
Britain have a similar approach, where sports have been punished for failing to meet targets. Basketball along with six others including synchronised swimming, water polo and weightlifting were stripped of funding because UK Sport did not believe they could win medals prior to Rio. The money saved was disbursed among other sports.
In New Zealand, a third of their money also goes on international travel because of their remote location. There is an imperative to deliver value for money.
“We have changed things,” says Miskimmin. “From 2011 we created a restructure of the HP system and we actually created a wholly owned subsidiary to run HP. We wanted to give it a little bit of distance from the bureaucracy, allow them to focus on absolute winning and getting our athletes to go faster.”
Political will means not cutting money to sport as Ireland has done every year since the crash including 2018. Despite proven health benefits, successive governments have failed to understand or lacked the will to back sport.
It is unlikely any administration would have the appetite to back radical action for fear of blow back from disenchanted federations. But since the foundation of the State, just six Irish sports have won Olympic medals, 16 in boxing representing more than half the entire haul of 31. Athletics, swimming, sailing, rowing and equestrian are the others.
“The one thing we can’t do is we can’t cover everyone and that’s the challenge that we have,” says Miskimmin.
It’s a thought to savour. Take out boxing from the Olympic programme (although they are doing a fine job of taking themselves out) and Ireland is an Olympic wasteland.
Perhaps Miskimmin will prompt different thinking. Perhaps now it is time to exercise tough love, look to where Ireland might find medals in the future. That maybe new Olympic sports, rock climbing or surfing. Radical all right but radical is working for New Zealand.
Medal tally: how Ireland fares against New Zealand
2000: Ireland (1 medal ) - NZ (4 medals)
2004: Ireland (0 medals) - NZ (5 medals)
2008: Ireland (3 medals) - NZ ( 9 medals)
2012: Ireland (6 medals) - NZ (13 medals)
2016: Ireland (2 medals) - NZ (18 medals)