July 2020,

The Year Ahead: Challenges and Opportunities

By Michael Scott, Chief Executive, High Performance Sport New Zealand

Looking ahead to the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games, arguably there has never been a more challenging time for high performance sport in New Zealand.

High performance sports programmes are operating within an unprecedented post COVID-19 environment. As the athletes and coaches look to ramp up their efforts, they are faced with uncertainty on almost every level, including when they can resume international travel for training and competition. That, coupled with the effects of lockdown and the decisions many need to make about their own careers, has created unforeseen mental and physical demands. The same applies to non-Olympic or Paralympic sports.

It is a credit to New Zealand’s high performance athletes that many of them took the opportunity to be role models during lockdown, inspiring the nation when we needed it most through social media videos and the like. Since lockdown ended there has been a period of resetting where athletes and coaches have tapped into the expert support available as they face up to the challenges ahead.

Unsurprisingly we’ve recently seen high-profile retirements in some sports such as cycling, rowing and hockey, and there may be more over the coming months. We’ve also seen some of our biggest names, who are nearing the end of their careers, dig in for a further 12-month push to Tokyo. There should be no judgement either way – just a recognition of the tough decisions they have all had to make following the postponement of the Games, and support for their ongoing involvement in sport on or off the field.

At the other end of the age and stage spectrum, our up-and-coming athletes will be a year further on in their development in 2021, and some may be ready to shine on the world stage.

So for those with Tokyo in their sights, what does the next 12 months hold?

Athletes and coaches are preparing on the basis that the Games will go ahead. This is no doubt easier said than done and requires great mental and physical resilience. But there is no alternative when the goal is establishing a competitive advantage that delivers inspirational and aspirational performances in a year’s time.

With much of the world still in the grip of COVID-19, it is unlikely our borders will open any time soon. Most sports will not be banking on international travel before the end of 2020.

Faced with this hurdle, High Performance Sport NZ is working with targeted sports to help their campaigns in ways that maintain or enhance New Zealand’s competitive advantage.

This will require an innovative and experimental approach to creating daily training environments that go some way towards replicating the competition environment.

With some sports innovation is easier than others. Commonwealth Games gold medal weightlifter David Liti this week competed in the international PanAm Cup, a virtual event where competitors lifted in their own gyms around the world with a live stream on YouTube. Other sports will have to be more creative to compensate for lost international opportunities.

The ability to re-imagine the domestic performance environment and replicate the pressures associated with elite sport, will test our agility and adaptability. A combination of Kiwi ingenuity and cutting edge innovation will allow us to flex and learn while testing and piloting for the future.

With challenge comes opportunity. Given COVID-19 remains ‘controlled’ in New Zealand, athletes around the world would willingly come here for international competition. That is a competitive advantage we can and should maximise.

Rugby has already kick-started this bandwagon with its proposal that New Zealand hosts the entire Rugby Championship later this year. New Zealand Cricket are also making moves in this direction with a proposal to host tours by Pakistan, West Indies, Australia and Bangladesh to play the Blackcaps and Australia, England and India to take on the White Ferns.

Noting the Government support for the rugby initiative, and the fact that sports broadcasters around the world are crying out for meaningful content, why wouldn’t our Olympic, Paralympic and other high performance sports be thinking along similar lines?