Opinion: Riding shotgun, feeling like a no-one: Sport and recreation administrators in New Zealand just don’t get it!

November 12, 2018

Recently, there was a Sport NZ newsflash, much hinted at and anticipated in the days beforehand.

After pleading the case for a change at Sport NZ for many years now, I hoped to hear of a shift in support and funding to promote active recreation, away from a near-exclusive focus on traditional sports.

“Government launches $10-million strategy for women in sport,” ran the headlines, with articles outlining moves to get more girls and women into sport, and promoting role models such as Suzie Bates, the Silver Ferns and the Black Sticks.

The announcement, if you read very carefully, did mention active recreation – but it hardly featured alongside Sport with a capital ‘S’.

Don’t get me wrong. We need action and proactive support to get more girls and women active. But sport is not the only option – and as a panacea for getting more people active, it is not working.

Language and labels are powerful things. I’ve heard our sport administrators argue that ‘sport’ is a catch-all label for everything active. They need to wake up. It is a lame excuse for a term that disenfranchises a large group of worthwhile activities and their participants.

I was brought up in a modest, middle-class family, lucky to have parents that hung together through thick and thin.  I used to sit with Dad and follow rugby tests on the telly or the radio. Dad was really keen that I take up a sport. I played dutifully but wasn’t very interested. I preferred the amateur radio club, took up photography, and bred budgies and canaries. I had good friends. My family went to the beach and small bushwalks. I ran and stayed fit. Yet I felt I had let my dad down.

Then I went on a school camp and the world opened up. I discovered mountains and rock faces, rivers and whitewater. Life was transformed. I travelled the world rock climbing. I kayaked. I explored outdoors for the sake of it. I spent the rest of my life introducing others, young and old, to the magic I had experienced.

I look at the problems facing many New Zealanders today: obesity, mental illness, depression, suicide. There is strong evidence that physical activity helps all of these ills and equal evidence that time in natural places has health benefits.

For some, traditional sport provides the opportunity to exercise, refresh and regenerate. Others need something different. Whether it’s mountain biking or kayaking, frisbee golf or rock climbing, there are so many fantastic options that might turn someone on to a lifetime of active recreation. People need opportunities to try these things, they need skilled introduction and they need barriers removed so it’s easy to keep taking part.

That is what I hoped this latest announcement would mean for girls and women with support from the government. But the language tells me we will get more of the same focus on traditional sport with the same limited results for our young people.

I recently caught up for coffee with the CE of Sport NZ, Peter Miskimmin. I appreciated that he spared time to share thoughts on the status of sport and recreation in NZ. I congratulated him on the medals we were winning but decried the lack of emphasis and funding for other forms of activity. I said that from the Sport NZ board down, there was no advocacy for active recreation, and no culture in words, images or action that supported it.

He said, “What do you mean? I am a recreationalist. I play tennis with friends at the weekend, and I cycle to work.”

If you are a sportsperson (which is great), your language and concepts revert to sport. That is the conscious or unconscious bias that enters conversations and influences your decisions. You can’t claim to represent the values and culture of recreation unless you have lived a life focused on recreation, mixing in circles of recreationalists. For example, I am married to a woman, have women friends, work with women – but this does not give me a woman’s experience or perspective.

We finished our coffee and headed back to our separate worlds.

My hope for New Zealand youth is that we can offer them something different. There are lots of kids who just need the right opportunity to start a lifetime of activity. We need to encourage kids to play, dance, run, walk or do whatever pushes their buttons. It is no surprise to me to see the rise of skateboarding, parkour, hip-hop, Crossfit, Patu and much more.

Wouldn’t it be great if every kid in New Zealand could go on a school camp in our natural environment as part of their free public education. Wouldn’t it be great if every kid could try a range of active recreation choices during school and have the opportunity and support to carry on with them. Or if trainee teachers were taught the value of active recreation and had experts to call on in their schools, as well as Regional Sport (and Recreation) Trusts funded by Sport NZ. Wouldn’t it be great if there were a series of Weetbix cards dedicated to active women role models like Parris Goebel, Lydia Bradey and Ashley Peters.

I had a dark day lately when Steve Hansen floated the idea that taxpayers might augment the salaries of the commercial arm of New Zealand Rugby – the All Blacks – and the Prime Minister listened rather than breaking down in fits of laughter. The argument was that by winning the 2019 Rugby World Cup the masses would be inspired to climb off their couches and get active. I wonder why the 2011 and 2015 World Cup victories were followed by falling activity levels, rather than rising? It was a sunny day when I saw this concept being debunked by veteran sports reporters as tripe.

I am getting older. My knee joints need replacing. My recovery rate is not what it was. But I still enjoy getting out on my mountain bike – not to race, just to be outside, to grunt up hills, to “fly” at a careful speed down hills, and to enjoy being in the bush. I walk for an hour every lunchtime. It clears my brain, relieves stress, I see and hear birds and noises of the bush. I dance with uncoordinated abandon to 1970s rock music when no one is around to die laughing. My wife and I love taking the dog for a stroll at the beach or Wellington’s greenbelts. The dog doesn’t know anything about sport but constantly reminds us of the joy of play and wild places. She is rejuvenated afterwards.

I am encouraged by this government’s focus on measuring success for the country through the Living Standards Framework which values more than financial return – it values human, social, environmental and cultural capitals. It values the worth of volunteering.

Active recreation has so much to offer so many New Zealanders. We need a government and a government agency that will invest in this and do things differently.

Active recreation has always ‘ridden shotgun’ to sport in the driver’s seat. This will continue because sport has glamour, competition, spectator excitement, sponsorship and medals. I simply urge a more balanced approach that will lead to better outcomes for more young New Zealanders who are currently disenfranchised. Or, as George Ezra so aptly sings, I want those involved in recreation to be “riding shotgun, feeling like a someone”.

Opinion piece by Skills Active chief executive Dr Grant Davidson.