Saturday, August 23, 2008

A nation of Hillarys and Snells - yeah, right

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, August 20.)

Sport sometimes brings out the very worst in New Zealanders.

Over the past few days we have witnessed a veritable orgy of self-congratulation over New Zealand’s record-beating day at the Olympic Games, when in the space of a few hours we went from nowhere on the medals table to 14th. The braying was deafening.

To listen to talkback callers and a few media commentators, you’d think we were all entitled to share the credit for the successes of our sportspeople in Beijing. At times like this we puff ourselves up in a bombastic display of nationalism that I find almost nauseating, all of us wallowing vicariously in the glory of the few. Never mind that a great many New Zealanders who puffed their chests out with pride watching TV on Saturday night have rarely indulged in anything more physically challenging than rolling a fag, carrying a slab of beer from the bottle store to the car or pulling the lever on a pokie machine.

I was as pleased as anyone with New Zealand’s successes in Beijing. I watched with a roomful of people last Saturday night and I’m quite certain it was only due to our noisy barracking that the Evers-Swindell twins got to the line one-hundredth of a second before the Germans.

We are perfectly entitled to feel proud. The Olympics are all about national pride, even if for many competitors the Games are at least as much about individual glory as winning for one’s country. But there is a point at which national pride can metamorphose into crass boastfulness and triumphalism.

Success in sport gives us an opportunity to re-state all our favourite clich├ęs about ourselves. On one radio station, callers were invited to phone in with their own three-word descriptions of Saturday’s medal haul, as if they were writing a newspaper headline, and predictably they were all about Kiwi grit and Kiwi pluck prevailing in the face of adversity. They were mostly variations on the “little country that could” theme.

Poor Mahe Drysdale, who struggled to the line on the verge of collapse, now seems fated to carry the great weight of personifying our national self-image, at least until the next heroic battler turns up.

We take great comfort in this self-image. It reinforces the notion that we are a country of Ed Hillarys and Peter Snells – resourceful, courageous and determined, yet unfailingly humble. Those first three adjectives may still apply, at least to our sports people, but can the rest of us truly claim to be humble? I’m not so sure.

In any case, can we claim to have a monopoly on pluck and grit? Of course not. Who’s to say that a New Zealander who wins a medal, or narrowly misses out on one, is more plucky and determined than a competitor from the Ukraine or Tunisia? They have all exhibited extraordinary courage and single-mindedness to get where they are. In fact athletes from Third World countries have probably overcome far greater obstacles to get to Beijing than any of ours.

Here’s the problem: far too much of our self-perception rests on how well, or how badly, we do at sport. This is probably inevitable in a small and relatively young country that has succeeded only intermittently, if sometimes with outstanding results, in other fields. Sport is what we have consistently done best and are best known for around the world. So it’s how we measure ourselves.

Hence major sporting occasions, whether it’s the Rugby World Cup or the Olympic Games, tend to follow the same familiar pattern. We talk ourselves up beforehand, often creating unrealistic expectations (the media have a lot to answer for). When we fail to live up to those self-created expectations, we are plunged into gloom and despair. And we are merciless in taking out our frustrations on the very people whom we have unfairly burdened with our nationalistic baggage and insecurities – the sports people.

Just look at the fate of the All Blacks. Savaged by everyone after their failure in last year’s Rugby World Cup, pilloried again after their recent isolated losses to the Wallabies and the Springboks, they are suddenly our heroes again. At least until their next defeat, when you can be sure the hounds will be baying again for the blood of Graham Henry and his sidekicks, and probably half the team as well.

A similar roller-coaster pattern has been played out in Beijing: great expectations during the buildup, followed by demoralisation and doubt when the New Zealand competitors in early events such as horse-riding, and even some of the rowing heats, failed to dominate as expected. You could sense the denunciations welling up at home: we were chokers, we couldn’t handle the intense pressure of top-level competition.

We even saw one or two sports journalists chiding New Zealanders for having unrealistic expectations – which was pretty rich, considering it was a drum-beating sports media that had hyped up New Zealand’s prospects in the first place.

And then, in a few ecstatic hours on Saturday, our pride and confidence were miraculously restored. We were world-beaters after all. Doesn’t this all seem rather familiar?

We are a fickle and capricious lot, as quick to share the credit when our sportspeople do well as we are to condemn them bitterly when they fail to measure up to our expectations. What does this say about us as a country?

It certainly doesn’t say we’re humble, much as we might like to think we are. Rather, it says we are insecure and immature. The support we give our sports people is conditional on them making us feel good about ourselves. They deserve better.

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