Saga of high-performance sport: The athlete community fragments around a new advocacy group

  • Some athletes plan to start their own union
  • The move comes amid concerns that a new athletes’ representation, to be run by High Performance Sport NZ, would not be fully independent
  • High Performance Sport NZ says the proposed new representative body would be “organisationally separate” but would need its financial backing

A group of elite rowers and cyclists are working to form their own union as questions continue to be raised over the independence of a new athletes’ body to be run by High Performance Sport NZ.

Things has learned that the government agency has reached an agreement in principle with the New Zealand Olympic Committee (NZOC) Athletes Commission to set up an athletes’ voice mechanism in response to a series of reviews in turbulent environments of elite sport.

Under the terms agreed, the new group, the Athletes Leadership Network, will be funded by High Performance Sport NZ but will be “organisationally separate”.

However, the athlete community already seems divided about the new body.

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New Zealand’s leading athletes’ rights body, the Athletes’ Federation, refused to be involved in the formation of the new body, fearing the model would be ‘compromised’ with High Performance Sport NZ’s involvement.

Meanwhile, athletes from two major Olympic sports – rowing and cycling – have chosen to go their own way and be in the process of unionizing.

The new Athlete Voice mechanism has been in the works since March last year as part of the wellbeing measures introduced as part of High Performance Sport NZ’s Strategy 2024, after multiple reviews highlighted the need for athletes to have access to independent representation.

This need was further underscored following the death of elite cyclist Olivia Podmore, when the results of an independent investigation by Cycling NZ and High Performance Sport NZ revealed the “unacceptable” power imbalance within elite sporting environments.

Rio Olympian Olivia Podmore, pictured above, died on suspicion of suicide in August last year.

Alex Whitehead/Fotosport

Rio Olympian Olivia Podmore, pictured above, died on suspicion of suicide in August last year.

In its final report, the panel of inquiry, led by Mike Heron QC and academic Sarah Leberman, acknowledged that High Performance Sport NZ had taken steps to put in place an athlete voting mechanism but stressed that each new representative panel would be “organisationally and financially independent”. should be” by the government agency and “be empowered to exercise real power and speak honestly on behalf of athletes.”

Despite the recommendations of the committee of inquiry, High Performance Sport NZ have continued to press ahead with their plans.

This was done without the support of the Athletes Federation, New Zealand’s best-resourced athletes’ advocacy group, after the organization refused to be involved in the process.

Of particular concern to the athletes’ association were the requirements set out in a “Request for Proposal” document, which stated that the athletes’ association must adopt a “collaborative approach to public statements/media” and “support and enhance existing HPSNZ or NSO escalation systems/ processes”.

Athletes’ Association chief Roger Mortimer said the requirements would effectively prevent the new body from speaking out against High Performance Sport NZ.

“When reviewing the [request for proposal] we concluded that its scope was compromised as it did not allow athletes to be truly empowered or independently represented; to be able to speak honestly and with absolute freedom on issues that are important to them and their respective sports,” said Mortimer.

“We felt that the decision on how athletes are independently represented and able to access the expertise and support they need should rest with the athletes themselves, not HPSNZ. As a result, we simply chose not to engage in this process.”

Mike Heron QC spoke at a press conference last month after the results of an independent investigation were released by Cycling NZ.


Mike Heron QC spoke at a press conference last month after the results of an independent investigation were released by Cycling NZ.

Sport NZ boss Raelene Castle said she was disappointed that the athletes’ association had decided not to submit a formal proposal, having been involved in previous consultations on the project. Castle added the RFP is a “starting point” for negotiations.

“We were certainly hoping that the athletes’ association would intervene in this process with a proposal to consider, but for some reason they decided against it,” she said.

“Ultimately we ended up with a group that entered the process and we negotiated our way and discussed and debated in a structure that we’ve ended up in now.”

Castle said any requirement for the Athletes Leadership Network to take a collaborative approach to what has been publicly discussed and to support High Performance Sport NZ’s existing systems was removed from the final agreement.

Asked whether High Performance Sport NZ has effectively dismissed the findings of Cycling NZ’s investigative panel by going ahead with its plans, Castle stressed that the new organization would be independent.

“We agree that it needs to be organizationally separate, which it is, the reality is that if there is no financial support from HPSNZ then there is no other way to fund this group of athletes.”

However, the group, which represents Rowing NZ and Cycling NZ athletes, appears to have found its own model, although the details of how the union will be funded are still unclear.

Former track and field athlete Sarah Cowley Ross is now Chair of the Athletes' Commission of the New Zealand Olympic Committee.

Alex Livesey/Getty Images

Former track and field athlete Sarah Cowley Ross is now Chair of the Athletes’ Commission of the New Zealand Olympic Committee.

The move by rowers and cyclists to form their own union effectively undermines the Athlete Leadership Network promoted by the NZOC Athletes’ Commission.

Sarah Cowley Ross, chair of the NZOC Athletes’ Commission, said the group plans to consult fully with all sports before signing any agreements with High Performance Sport NZ.

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