The end of a great XX Commonwealth Games

By the time you read this, the quadrennial Commonwealth Games of the British Commonwealth will have ended. The Gold Coast in Queensland, Australia will be celebrating a job well done hosting the Games. The representatives of 53 nations that make up over 1/4 of the worlds total population will be packing up and on their way back home or on to their next sporting fixture. With a brilliant New Zealand campaign with only a few disappointments coming to an end I thought I would write an article with a lighter tone than the heavy ones of the last while.

To someone not from the British Commonwealth, you might ask, “so what”?

The British Commonwealth may at times seem like a dysfunctional family and in some respects there is an element of truth to that. Some of its member nations have barely functioning Governments, whilst others are wealthy, respected nations of the international community. You might say, “but they are all ex-colonies and want nothing to do with Britain”. Not true. The nations do not need to be monarchies to be in the Commonwealth – the nations just need to be former British colonies. Otherwise the games would be inescapably much different – you would have no India, Pakistan, South Africa, Kenya, Singapore.

But back to the Commonwealth Games 2018.

The Games had it all. From tiny nations Vanuatu, Solomon Islands and Cook Islands picking up their first ever Commonwealth Games medals, to the usual power houses, the range of countries on the dais was impressive. From the sad scene of watching Australian leading the mens marathon only to collapse in agonizing circumstances 2km from the finish and a certain gold to watching the unmitigated glee of the little island nations finally achieving long held dreams, the emotions were there.

For me as a New Zealander this was a chance to watch what for me is a mid term reference point in the four year Olympic cycle. It was a chance to see what progress has been made in the Olympic sports since Rio de Janeiro, but also for a few sports almost exclusive to the British Commonwealth, such as netball to have a good old fashion derby.

From Sophie Pascoe leading the team into the stadium on 05 April 2018 for the Opening Ceremony right through to Stacey Michelsen doing the honours for the Closing Ceremony New Zealand has had a great Games.

There were the “oh-so-close” loss in the womens shotput where Olympic double gold and one time silver medallist Valerie Adams came second. There was also the pleasing progress of Olympic Pole Vault bronze and now Commonwealth Games silver medallist Eliza McCartney, who at 21 has a promising career ahead.

And there were surprises. Some of them lovely and some not so lovely. Of the lovely surprises I think the award has to go to the New Zealand womens hockey team for nabbing New Zealand’s first ever hockey gold – always a nice thing to turn on the television expecting the scores to be tied or the opposition leading and find N.Z. leading 4-1 with just minutes to go.

As for the not so lovely? Actually it was nothing to do with the sport but everything to do with the miserable timing of advertisements, the showing of highlights when live matches with New Zealanders in them were on  Whilst pleased that some free to air screening was allowed, it seemed like it was poorly planned and even more poorly executed. If Television New Zealand are going to host live coverage of events like the Commonwealth Games in future, they need to be better organized and better clued to what is going on, because this really was not good enough.

And then there was just the downright sad. The decline of the Silver Ferns netball team has been hard to watch, but the last ten days have been absolutely brutal. A cascade of bungled matches – Malawi, England, Australia, Jamaica. Although one hopes that the resurgent England, who bet Australia in the gold medal match, points to a brighter future in the international sport, there is much to be despondent about in New Zealand netball at the moment. No doubt there will be decisions over the future of the coach and Silver Ferns captain in the coming days. So, I leave you with a few highlights of the New Zealand campaign:

Congratulations Emirates Team New Zealand

It was May 1995. School was out for the holidays and a nations pride was swelling: New Zealand was about take on Dennis Conner’s Americans for the right to hold aloft the America’s Cup.

At that time only once before had it left American waters, when Australia successfully challenged for it in 1983. 12 years later, off the coast of San Diego, leading 4-0, the hopes, the pride of 3.5 million New Zealanders rested on the men sailing a boat appropriately called Black Magic for its colour. But also for the fact that all too often for the American’s the last thing their skipper Dennis Conner would see of it is the boat crossing the finish line some distance ahead of him.

So it was no small event for New Zealand to grab the America’s Cup in 1995. Huge parade’s were held in Auckland (population 1.0 million; 350,000 turned out), Wellington (population 380,000; 100,000 turned out), Christchurch (population 325,000; 140,000 turned out)to welcome them home. The man who engineered it, Peter Blake, earned himself a knighthood. Skipper Russell Coutts was a hometown hero in Dunedin. Several others were awarded significant honours in the Queens Birthday and New Years honours lists.

5 years later, Team New Zealand sucessfully defended the America’s Cup in Auckland, becoming only the first nation outside of the U.S. to win it and defend it. Again large crowds turned out across the country, now approaching 4.0 million people, to see the victors. On the day of the final race, instead of having Mr Coutts skipper the New Zealand boat, a young sailor named Dean Barker was given the wheel.

And then we lost it. For reasons I cannot remember, the next defence was brought forward and held in 2003. By that point, several ex-members of Team New Zealand including the skipper Russell Coutts, and tactician had jump overboard and found their way to Swiss Challenger Alinghi. It was a disaster. The boat mast snapped in a race we could not afford to lose and Alinghi seized their chances.

The next several years up to the 2007 challenge against Alinghi, off the coast of Portugal, because Switzerland is landlocked, was marred by court battles. New Zealand was led by Dean Barker again. The first perceptions of it being a race for rich men to play with their toys began to grow. I still wanted to maintain the faith, but New Zealand lost again and the acrimony began to turn people off.

Thus it was almost with complete disinterest on my part that 2013 saw in a new bid to win the America’s Cup back. It was in San Francisco. And I admittedly would probably have paid no attention whatsoever if it hadn’t been for a combination of having started a job at a rental car company where in the course of taking up or bringing cars back from the airport, the radio would be on and almost invariably tuned to hear coverage. It was against Oracle, a team headed by an American named Jimmy Spithill. New Zealand was led once again by Dean Barker T.N.Z. lost again, but it was a close race helped to foster interest that would not have existed.

But the acrimony returned. Mr Barker left for a Japanese syndicate. More court battles and a continuing controversy over funding when other perhaps more deserving sports got nothing at all seemed to have damaged the reputation permanently. And thus perhaps this more than anything else contributed to my such complete inattention that I didn’t even know we had made the final until I just saw something in the media one day a couple of weeks ago that T.N.Z. – now funded by Emirates – had mad the final and would challenge Jimmy Spithill’s Oracle for the Auld Mug.

I have to say honestly that I regret not paying any attention at all to the races until Monday 26 June when it was announced New Zealand was just one win away from winning the America’s Cup. Perhaps it was because it was at this point in the previous campaign we choked completely and the Oracle syndicate went on to win. Perhaps it was because with so many other things going on in the world and New Zealand I simply did not pay enough attention.

Whatever the case, I am sorry. You guys deserved my attention more than I actually gave. You undid the years of controversy that sullied the America’s Cup. You made a thing to be proud of again.

Well done.

The test that could have been

The cricket season of 2016-17 had its highs and its lows. How close we came to winning a one day series against South Africa, only to have a monumental batting collapse in the fifth and deciding match. And yet three test matches later against the same opponent, how close we came to winning only for the weather to intervene.

So, as New Zealand’s domestic cricket season closes, we can look back at the matches played and enjoy the high’s and commisserate about the lows.

The matches against Bangladesh were a good warm up series. New Zealand had an opportunity to remove the rust from the winter season and get its bowling and batting line ups firing on all cylinders. Two tests including one where Bangladesh scored 595 showed up some serious issues with the bowling, whilst Tom Latham and Kane Williamson gave good accounts of their batting.

Australia followed in a rain interrupted Chappell-Hadlee series where New Zealand took both matches at 6 and 24 runs respectively. Both matches were nail biters that went into the final overs.

It will be the the test that ended yesterday that cricket followers in New Zealand will rue the most. New Zealand’s bowlers were afflicted by injury that in the third and final test against South Africa, left them without their two most potent bowlers Tim Southee and Trent Boult. It left them without batsman Ross Taylor to help Kane Williamson to steady the innings, despite at the end of the day the team doing a sterling job rallying to help.

It has been more than a decade since New Zealand bet South Africa in a test. With South Africa teetering at 95/5 in its second innings, still nearly 100 runs behind New Zealand, which still had a batting innings to spare, the prospect was there for a famous victory.

Alas, it shall now wait for another season as New Zealand reverts to its winter sports.

Looking back at the Olympics

Rather than writing a bitchy gloomy political post today I thought I would do a run down on the Olympic moments that mattered to me the most.

For the last 16 days, despite the controversies swirling around Rio de Janeiro, we have seen some fantastic sporting achievements. Whether it was Michael Phelps getting that  huge medal haul in the pool or the amazing Usain Bolt and his athletic brilliance, Fiji getting its first ever Olympic medal and managing to make it a gold or watching our own Olympians it is has been an absolute pleasure on the eyes and ears.  Mongolian Coach ProtestFiji Gold MedalThere were the funny and bizarre moments like the Mongolian wrestler who started celebrating early, and in doing so backed away from his opponent. Somehow through the language barrier or interpretation of the rules, the message to the wrestler did not get through and he ended up losing. What happened next was even more bizarre: his coach, absolutely furious with the officials stripped down to his jockeys and shoes in front of millions of viewers. There were moments where the Olympic spirit came to the fore, and no more so than when New Zealander Nikki Hamblin and American Abbey D’Agostino collided in the womens 5,000 metre heat that they were competing in. It could have been ugly, but instead they helped each other to their feet and kept on going, drawing the respect of officials, competitors, the media and viewers alike.

But it was another New Zealander at the end of the day who got my attention the most. It wasn’t because she won gold, or broke a world record. Eliza Mcartney is in the photo essay because have I seen such humility, grace and joy rolled into a medallist like it was McCartney after she won the bronze medal in the womens pole vault.

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - AUGUST 19: Eliza Mccartney of New Zealand celebrates winning bronze in the Women's Pole Vault Final on Day 14 of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at the Olympic Stadium on August 19, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)

Nkki and Abbey

Michael Phelps of the U.S. poses with his gold medal after winning the men's 4x100m medley relay final during the London 2012 Olympic Games at the Aquatics Centre August 4, 2012. REUTERS/Jorge Silva/File photo

Counting the cost of the Rio Olympics

As I type this, the thousands of athletes who have lit up the world of sport over the last two weeks will be enjoying the end of the Closing Ceremony of Rio de Janeiro 2016 and the subsequent athletes mix and mingle. For some it will be the end of their careers. For others it will be “see you in four years” before which they will have a break and then start their training programmes anew. For a few in disgrace, their reputations shot it will be a time to keep a low profile.

There is no doubt that Rio has been the subject of huge controversy. From the level of crime in the host city and Brazil’s crisis of governance, to unfinished venues and polluted waterways there has been no shortage of problems attached to Rio 2016. And as the athletes begin to depart for their homelands or on to the next competition on their schedule readying the venues for the second part of the four yearly sporting spectacle is a top priority. With the Paralympics just a couple of weeks away and the associated influx of athletes with quite different logistical needs to begin in about a week, Brazil has some very immediate and potentially quite fundamental challenges to address to ensure these athletes as much get their day in the sun.

One of these challenges is simply being able to afford the Paralympics. Corruption and bad financial planning have already cost Brazil significantly at these games. An estimate that only 12% of the available tickets had been sold should be a warning sign of the problems ahead. Just as was the case with the Olympics, guaranteeing the safety of thousands of athletes, their support crews, the tens of thousands of spectators who will converge once more on the games will test Brazil’s organizational and logistical capacities.

When all is said and done and the Paralympics end in a month’s time, Brazil will have some very hard questions to ask of itself, such as where will it find the money to pay all the bills? Could it host such an event again soon? How to deal with the corruption that so nearly crashed the Games.

So too will the International Olympic Committee in trying to justify the enormously expensive and logistically nightmarish exercise that hosting an Olympics has become. Few countries can afford to host the Games, and even fewer have multiple cities capable of hosting such a huge logistical exercise that often runs a loss. And sadly for these Olympics, geopolitics reared its ugly head as it has done in the past – although New Zealand certainly was not the cause of the animosity betwween the U.S. and China/Russia in the Rio Olympics, 40 years ago African anger at New Zealand hosting white-only rugby teams led to a mass boycott by African nations at the 1976 Olympics and nearly got New Zealand thrown out of the Moscow Olympics four years later (before the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan led to a Western boycott).

Will the Olympic Committee be able to clean up its doping programme or will there be more sad cases such as that at Rio where nearly the entire Russian athletics team stayed home because of an I.O.C. ban? Thus far, there appear to have been few cases of doping at Rio. However the decision to ban the Russian athletes and not the entire Russian contingent has caused significant debate, amid allegations of a state sponsored doping programme. Numerous sports suffered from  the absence of Russian athletes, but would it have been fair to have suspected and known drugs cheats there? Of course not.

Perhaps at the end of the day it could be safely said that Brazil’s financial and legal wizards have their own Olympic Games coming up soon, and that these games will have a bigger impact on Brazil than Rio 2016. But one hopes it will be remembered for the competitors and not the politics.