Adapting the key to success

Adapt or die.

Geoff Barry, Mary O'Connor, Brendan Griffin TD, John Treacy, Sarah Keane and Peter Miskimmin. Pic: INPHO/Morgan Treacy

It’s a maxim that could be tattooed onto the consciousness of the modern world and sport, with its quixotic traditions and structures and ideas stretching back well over 100 years, can’t think itself an exception to changing times and norms.

Brad Pitt’s character Billy Beane used that very phrase in the movie Moneyball when he entrusted the recruitment policy for the Oakland A’s to a kid just out of Yale with an economics degree and, in the process, sidelined a team of scouts with decades’ worth of baseball craft in the process.

Peter Miskimmin’s curveball has been less outlandish but his beliefs are equally challenging to the sporting status quo.

The CEO of Sport New Zealand explained his thinking to the Irish Examiner prior to the Federation of Irish Sport’s annual conference yesterday at which he was keynote speaker.

“The really good thing about sport is that we are all passionate and passion is a great thing,” said the two-time hockey Olympian. 

“But it can be a negative thing if people use it as a way of defending the old. Or, if they don’t see it in terms of embracing others.

“We have to change in the sports industry. We have to adapt. We have been supplying sport in the same way — and I am talking about New Zealand here now, I can’t talk for Ireland — for years on years.

“We play cricket in the same way my father and grandfather played cricket. Young kids today don’t want to play it that way. We have this notion called supply and demand. We are supplying something in the same old traditional way but the demand is different.

“People have to change. Organisations have to change. Baby boomers like myself, that are sitting in leadership positions, have got to be far more open to change. Anyone involved in sport has to have the mindset that we are doing it for the kids, not what we did.

“It is a struggle for some and you do have to get your head around it.”

Miskimmin has been pivotal in a sea change that has swept over Kiwi sport. It’s a wave that has generated enormous success: From a point where they banked four medals at the 2000 Olympic Games to one where they brought 18 home from Rio 16 years later.

Getting from Point A to Point B involved major upheaval.

Peter Miskimmin, Chief Executive of Sport New Zealand

The very structures governing sport were demolished and rebuilt anew, funding went through the roof thanks to government buy-in and investment was targeted with a ruthlessness that invited the inevitable blowback from invested stakeholders.

Half-a-dozen Olympic sports were identified as medal prospects and backed with the cash required. The rest were, to be blunt, cut adrift.

“It was unfair and it wasn’t democracy but high performance isn’t about democracy,” Miskimmin explained.

Clearly not. Results are the currency and initial successes under the new approach set a foundation for more investment and a great spread of the resources. Thirteen sports are now in that same loop and nine medalled in Rio.

“The single biggest decision was to target our investment, so we made some pretty tough decisions and there was quite a bit of blood on the floor.

“National governing bodies were not happy but we were able to get through that with the support of the minister and the government at the time.”

That last point can’t be stressed enough.

It was suggested at yesterday’s conference that Irish sport has never had so many champions at the cabinet table. That may be but, when it comes to friends in high places, New Zealand sport has the rest of us licked.

Prime minister from 2008 up to last year was John Key, a known cricket nut, and the last three sports ministers have held, in order, parallel postings as the head honchos with responsibility for foreign affairs, health, and finance.

The equivalent here would have Simon Coveney balancing his Brexit brief with the boxing federation — which could actually have some crossover appeal — but the fact is that sport is a long way down the political league table in most countries.

Simon Coveney

“Governments have banked the value of sport, they have taken it for granted,” said Miskimmin who knows what it is to walk into a departmental meeting with people in health and education and have them roll their eyes at the sight of the ‘sports jock’.

New Zealand, though, appears to be an outlier in terms of decision-makers at the very top.

Government ministers, conscious of the country’s geographical isolation and its small size, see sport as a means of making statements on the world stage and increasing the feelgood factor of those at home. All the while feeding into the nation’s health and education and welfare.

So, while that targeting of key sports was controversial, it isn’t designed to be as cut and dried as the UK model which has ostracised high-participation sports such as basketball from the Olympic funding pool because of an inability to claim podium places.

“We are battling with that same issue. We have pursued a fairly no-compromise approach in looking for victories and magical moments that can unite the nation. We have got lots of them but what we are recognising now is that our society is changing.

“We are a very ethnically diverse country and we want to be able to speak to all New Zealanders and so we need hero moments that resonate with lots of people. It may not necessarily be the diet of Olympic sports that we have at the moment.

“So, while we will never win the Fifa World Cup in football, our national team might qualify for the finals tournament and that could be inspirational enough to galvinise the country. So, we are asking, ‘what does winning mean?’”

Miskimmin was at pains to stress he did not accept the invite to speak in Ireland so he could preach about everything New Zealand has got right and Ireland wrong. 

He is happy to share his knowledge and experiences but his primary motive for the trip was to learn himself.

From Ireland, he will travel along with Geoff Barry, general manager for community sport in New Zealand, to Wales, England, Norway, and England in the hope the crumbs of information they pick up can be added to the mix they have put together back home.

New Zealand finished third in the medals per capita table at the last Olympic Games but they are struggling with rising levels of childhood obesity, club membership is down 11% and they are facing challenges in integrating a growing and worryingly sedentary ethnic Asian population into the sports sector. 

“We don’t have it all right,” he told his audience in Dublin yesterday.

No, but they are adapting.



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