Sport and Recreation is broken

I was recently involved in an online focus group answering questions about the guidelines for the proposed Integrity Sport and Recreation Commission, created by the The Integrity Sport and Recreation Bill to strengthen and protect the integrity of New Zealand’s sport and recreation sector. It was a valuable exercise for me as I have long held views about the way sport and recreation are managed in New Zealand- brought about by my long involvement in windsurfing, including 9 years as President of Windsurfing NZ. To help give feedback I wrote down my thoughts on how the sport and recreation sector could be managed based on the priorities of each, my main contention being that recreation gets little support or recognition especially in respect to it’s size and importance to the health and economy of our country. I basically contend that the sector should be divided into three parts, (professional sport, recreational sport, and active recreation), funded separately, managed by different organisations, and measured separately, and also that wellbeing should be included when outcomes are measured. During Covid lockdowns sports ground to a halt while active recreation flourished. This should have been a wakeup call, but instead the country rushed straight back into the old priorities and ways, having learnt nothing. I’ve got a lot more I could say (and may) – but here’s my thoughts on this particular aspect.

In my view the perceived need for the Integrity Commission and the code we are discussing is largely driven by the growing amount of negative publicity around sports and sports people, but this in turn is largely driven by what I would classify as professional sport, and therein I think lies a major problem. These professional sports and people will be bound by contracts, so where will the proposed code sit in relation to these?

I would suggest that the code is ignoring the elephant in the room and rather than trying to add a patch up to the issue some further analysis is needed. I feel there are 3 groupings involved here.

Professional sport, which basically includes anyone who is paid or significantly funded to play sport. This includes professional athletes and those who are supported through agencies such as High Performance Sport NZ. These athletes the agencies/businesses that they are involved with should be classified and covered by normal employment law and work place health and safety. There is no need for a code because there are already comprehensive measures in place to cover these relationships. In most cases the issues being revealed, and perhaps the hazards such as head injuries would never be tolerated in a business context, so why should they be ok in sport? Imagine working in an industry where head injury assessments were routine?

The second group I’ll call recreational sport, basically what we would have previously called amateur sport. This is the group the current code discussion really applies to, where competition, groups and clubs intersect. Most of the issues being raised apply to this sector because various people have control over other people owing to the fact that it does involve groups and organisation. If people want to play sport they must engage in these groups, and that is what creates much of the conflict and behaviour. It also often involves facilities and money which create further opportunity for conflict. Sport NZ is probably the agency to manage this group.

The third group is active recreation, essentially anything that includes physical activity, from gardening to mountain climbing. The differentiator is that these do not necessarily require (but do not preclude) clubs or facilities, and the opportunity for much of the conflict we are discussing can be avoided, since no one is placed in a position of power over another. Active recreation also inherently does not include many of the restrictive issues that arise in sport such as age, weight, size, physical ability, wealth and more. Active recreation is open to anyone who wants to take part, there is no gate keeping or standard they must meet, they can just do it in the manner and level that suits their ability and need. They can also do it ‘for life’ at the level that suits them, unlike many sports which have physical requirements that exclude many. For this reason it is also the group that is most healthy as there is no external pressure to perform or take risks. It could be managed by a new agency ‘recreation NZ’ and would be funded and measured by the health and social welfare agencies. Active recreation can also have a code, but it would be a personal code to support individual self care, environmental responsibility and social responsibility.

I think New Zealand sport suffers from a one size fits all approach, and we would benefit as a country by breaking it down into these three sectors. I’m keen to hear the views of the others.