Sport and the New Zealanders

A new book traces the history of sport in New Zealand.

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Alexander Turnbull Library

No one could deny the central place of sport in New Zealand life—not just the big team games such as rugby, cricket, and netball, where Kiwis see themselves as taking on the world, but all the active pursuits that get people onto courts, tracks, and pitches, on snow, and in the water.

Any number of books attest to sport’s hold on our national psyche, from the endless biographies of sporting greats, to histories tracing the rise of specific codes, or the unfolding drama of notable tours.

Sport and the New Zealanders: A History attempts something different: an all-embracing social and cultural account of sport in this country that begins with the world of pre-contact Māori and winds forward chronologically, tracing not just the manner in which its various manifestations took root, but also how it all related to what was happening elsewhere in the world.

Announcing one of the book’s main themes, authors Greg Ryan and Geoff Watson quote British historian Richard Holt: “Sports have a heroic and mythical dimension; they are, in a sense, a story we tell ourselves about ourselves.” For New Zealanders, one of the most durable stories is how, as a sporting nation, we ‘punch above our weight’ in the world arena. The cliché has a kernel of truth, say Ryan and Watson. Over the years, the country has produced some notable world and Olympic champions, including tennis player Anthony Wilding, athlete Peter Snell, triathlete Erin Baker, and squash player Susan Devoy. It has also nurtured exceptional teams—“though perhaps not as often as legend would have us believe”—such as the 1924 ‘Invincible’ All Blacks, and the 1976 Olympic gold-medal men’s hockey team.

But why, of all the stories we tell each other, are sporting ones so powerful, so persistent? In large part, say Ryan and Watson, because they connect with what New Zealanders think about themselves and their place in the world. For a young, isolated country, they functioned early on as foundation narratives.

Sport told of a harmonious bond between a dominant settler population and marginalised Māori. It reinforced the notion of a country forged by practical, hard-working pioneers; a society linked to distant ‘Home’ yet distinct; one that bore the moral and physical character of its Anglo-Saxon roots, yet was socially progressive and egalitarian. And, in an age when the health of citizens verged on being a moral statement about national character, prowess on the sports field was symbolically powerful—more so as, amid concerns elsewhere about squalid city living, in New Zealand sport was seen as having been reared in the wholesome countryside.

Much in these narratives was, of course, plain wrong. Māori were admitted to teams selectively, and on terms that suited Pākehā. For many years, women were excluded from competitive sport, their prime function being to introduce a bouquet of civilising refinement and to cheer on the menfolk from the stands. Egalitarianism on the pitch was a phenomenon that flickered into and out of life as necessity dictated. And, finally, however much the mythologisers would have wished it otherwise, from the outset sport had a strong urban base.

Nevertheless, the stories were spun around a core of truth. Above all, sport offered—and continues to offer—what Ryan and Watson call “individual and collective narratives of achievement”. It is a charter of belonging, a locus of community involvement and identity, at a time when life is increasingly atomised.

At the intersection of Trafalgar and Halifax Streets in Nelson, a group of men play cricket in a paddock, about 1905. At top right, Dunedin curlers in June 1889. A Scottish import, curling highlights the role of sports in maintaining identity within settler communities.

As Sport and the New Zealanders makes plain, sport is not some unchanging heirloom handed down unbroken through the generations. Despite the fervour with which devotees cherish and celebrate tradition, individual sports are ceaselessly evolving, adapting to new commercial and social realities by harnessing new technologies, experimenting with novel formats, and tweaking rules.

A glance at some of the book’s many photographs suggests its scope. Here is a motorcyclist grinding away at Kilbirnie Speedway in the 1930s, a female cyclist in ankle-length skirt and straw hat being helped onto her machine at the Basin Reserve in 1900, future Cabinet minister Bob Semple in his prime as a bare knuckle boxer, a gymnastic squad striking a pose in 1910 at the height of the ‘physical culture’ movement, men playing cricket in a paddock in turn-of-the-century Nelson, the Olympic gold-medal rowing eight at Munich in 1972, barbed wire ringing a rugby pitch in 1981.

At the turn of the 20th century, a female competitor in a cycle race at the Basin Reserve, Wellington, is assisted by a starter.

For a nation founded at the start of Europe’s ‘leisure revolution’, New Zealand has not been slow to the party. And, Ryan and Watson suggest, we will not be abandoning our near-obsessive attachment to sport any time soon.

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