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High Performance Sport – funding decision

by Stephen on February 2nd, 2024

This week’s decision of the Employment Relations Authority, finding that the Government agency High Performance Sport New Zealand, is obligated to engage in good-faith collective bargaining with the newly-formed Athletes Cooperative, which represents around 60 elite athletes (mostly rowers and cyclists) – is a welcomed start to what I expect will be a lengthy journey. 

The decision itself involves some of the more complicated outer reaches of employment law in circumstances where HPSNZ does not have a formal employment relationship with athletes.  As a result, I do not propose to comment on the technicalities.  That is best left to the experts, such as the very experienced employment lawyers who represented the parties.

However, as a parent of a couple of athletes in ‘the system’ and therefore someone with more than just a passing interest in the outcome of the journey, I share the concerns of many other sporting parents about the design and implementation of the funding model for athletes.  From where I sit, there are aspects of the model that seem uncertain (and at times unfair) with, seemingly, constant changes and a high level of uncertainty. 

Self-evidently, the application of the model is key factor in the matrix of things affecting athlete welfare and, therefore, performance. 

These concerns are not new and have surfaced previously – such as in the 2022 inquiry in relation to Cycling New Zealand. 

Some of the issues have manifested themselves as a result of the current pressures on the cost of living – because the model often results in low levels of funding to individual athletes.  And they are not confined to New Zealand.  A report at the end of last year noted that Australia risks losing elite athletes before the 2032 Brisbane Olympics unless philanthropic funding can help fill a funding shortfall.  There it seems that, but for the intervention of an Australian billionaire to top-up some of the most high-profile Australian swimmers, they too would be suffering from the same cost-of-living pressures that are causing athlete wellbeing concerns for elite athletes in Australia.

The next stages of the journey are likely to be complicated.  And in a period when all Government agencies are facing cost and spending pressures.  The example provided by Australia, in a much bigger, apparently wealthier, environment points to the difficulties. 

But, with all of the risks and regards of being a sporting parent, sponsor, gear fetcher and carrier etc, as well as a sports tragic – I would like to think that there are enough good people on both sides of this discussion to continue working on solutions for the best interests of all concerned.  And I have some confidence that they are [all] aware that, without a working solution, the system risks undermining one of the key parts of the fabric of our society. 

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