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David Miller Online: Struggling For Medals

David Miller Online. Repeating Sydney. Why New Zealand Will Continue to Struggle for Medals at the Olympics.

You could almost feel the pride swelling in the chests of all Australians when IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch bestowed the ‘best ever’ label on the Sydney Olympics. Along with the Australian pride, you could almost imagine the envy of those in Atlanta who tried and failed to attain Samaranch’s bestowal four years earlier and the anxieties of those in Greece who must overcome sever logistical problems if they are to come close to matching this effort in Athens in 2004. What was also evident throughout the games and the subsequent Sydney parade for their Olympians was the pride the Australians took in the achievements of their athletes, who finished fourth on the overall medal table.

The sense of national pride within New Zealand has suffered a degree of damage following the Olympics. The Sydney games produced the lowest tally of Kiwi medals since before the 1972 Munich games and even prior to the IOC flag being lowered at Homebush the post mortems as to our poor performance where already underway. Among the theories emerging is the notion that performance-enhancing drugs aided many champion athletes, our athletes lacked the adequate preparation and that there is a need to import and develop our coaching base. However the underlying view to come out of this widespread analysis is that there is a lack of funding towards our athletes and coaches within this country. Due to this New Zealand was unable to match the achievements of other states in Sydney and the Kiwi team failed to place in the top 30 countries in terms of medals. Such a small country cannot hope to match the funding levels of the larger competitors. If the sponsorship is to be increased the levels required to make New Zealand competitive then the money cannot come from government alone, the funds are simply not there. The corporate sector must get involved in this process also, for example as Nike and other major corporations do overseas. It is for the reasons of funding why there is a fear that Dick Tonks, who coached Rod Waddell to New Zealand’s sole gold medal in Sydney may be lured offshore.

Any funding increases must be accompanied by a clear policy direction. Already there is debate over where any extra money should go. There are those who think that any funding increases should only go to those who have performed while an alternative view is that the money must be directed at the grassroots level of sport rather than those at the top to develop the future generations of athletes. While there was 16 million dollars was channelled into the three Sports Foundation centres prior to the games, this concept did not receive universal acceptance from New Zealand’s sporting community and there is the concern that having regional centres rather than a centrally based institute leads to the duplication of facilities and resources.

The fundamental problem New Zealand faced in Sydney is that due to the divergent levels of funding between countries, the standard of performance is improving at a much quicker rate for certain competitors. With the levels of funding countries such as the United States, China and even Australia are pouring into their sports programmes then the gap between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’ will only grow and continue to be a factor at future games. After witnessing the performance of athletes such as Marion Jones, Ian Thorpe, the US Dream Team basketballers, and Micheal Johnson displaying his golden Nike shoes after his win in the 400 metres it becomes clear that the Olympic games are no longer the strict amateur event they once where. The event that highlighted this most clinically was during the final of the men’s soccer, when the commentator listed all the European club sides, which had players on the field, including English giants Arsenal. New Zealand must ask whether it can produce the levels of funding to match the teams we are competing against, such as the 25 million dollars that Australia spent on average for each gold medal. If funding levels are increased to some level at which point at future Olympics will the people in this country expect to see the results.

Achievement in sport is taken extremely seriously in most countries around the world, and this country is no exception. The fact that countries such as Australia have poured so much money into achieving success in the Olympics along with other sporting codes shows that national pride remains very much linked to winning at sport. This was the reason state such as the former Soviet Union used any method available to achieve Olympic gold and why states such as the United States and China continue to strive for gold. It is this connection as to the reason why New Zealand has mixed feelings following the Olympics. The hard truth of the matter is that when it comes to sporting events that involve countries outside of the Commonwealth then we must accept that sporting success is proving more difficult to achieve. There are still champions among us and it there is no reason to give up on the Olympic dream, however while there is a large discrepancy between the funding and commitment to athletes between New Zealand and countries such as Australia, and a lack of a clear direction on how this money should be allocated, then the modest showing from Sydney can only be repeated at future Olympic games. This is the fact that New Zealand must come to grips with above all others when it not only bids an Olympic team farewell and but starts looking to the medal tally to begin climbing.

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