By Joseph Romanos
The media are indeed difficult to please. Even though the 2016 Olympic team has been by far the most successful of any sent to a games by New Zealand, there has still been the odd snippy comment – what happened to our rowers, the cyclists were disappointing, equestrian blew their chances, swimming is a dead loss…
I really feel New Zealanders who don’t attend Olympics have no idea how tough they are. Our athletes are lining up not just with the best from their country, or even from the Commonwealth. They might have a Briton, an American, a Croatian, an Australian, a Japanese and a German for company. The cream of the cream for that event.
To win four golds, nine silvers and five bronzes was remarkable. Further, another nine New Zealand competitors were fourth, and within a whisker of a medal.
The spread of sports New Zealand achieved in was also noteworthy. Not just old favourites rowing, track and field and sailing. No, this time New Zealand won medals in kayaking (sprint and slalom), cycling, golf, rugby sevens and shooting as well.
For many years the benchmark for New Zealand teams was the 13 medals won in 1988, a wonderful effort considering that was at the height of steroid-soaked East Germany’s ascendancy. Then in London, New Zealand took home 13 medals again. I felt that would be difficult to top.
Sport New Zealand and the New Zealand Olympic Committee set a target of 14 medals again this time. I thought if the stars were in alignment and things went our way, it was possible, but it would be a mighty achievement.
To get to 18, and go so close in nine other events, was remarkable.
It was great that some of the really big names in the team, stars with international reputations, such as Mahe Drysdale, Lisa Carrington, Valerie Adams, Hamish Bond and Eric Murray, Blair Tuke and Peter Burling, Nick Willis and Lydia Ko produced when it counted.
But I was equally heartened by the medal successes of Luuka Jones in the kayaking slalom, of shooter Natalie Rooney, of shot putter Tom Walsh and pole vaulter Eliza McCartney. Before Rio they were big names in their sport within New Zealand. Now they have received international acclaim.
It’s tempting to look at the near misses – the equestrian team looked to have a three-day eventing team gold medal wrapped up until the final showjumping round of the competition (that’s what can happen when animals are involved), the New Zealand hockey men will long ponder how they failed to make the semi-finals after conceding three goals in the final four minutes of their quarter-final against Germany, Val Adams looked for all the world like a gold medallist until the final couple of throws in the shot put, the rugby sevens men played like champions against eventual winners Fiji but paid the price for a bad opening match against Japan, 470 sailors Polly Powrie and Jo Aleh would have successfully defended their Olympic title if they had avoided just one of their two disqualifications for crossing the start line fractionally early.
When I think of the Rio Olympics I will also reflect on the emergence of trampolinist Dylan Schmidt, on the brave medal bid in the omnium by Lauren Ellis, of Andrea Hewitt’s courage in the women’s triathlon (a top eight finish for the third consecutive Olympics).
The thing about sport is there have to be losers to have winners. The New Zealand cycling team will be disappointed to come away with just one medal, but to my mind Ellis, and both individual pursuit teams were really excellent. When it takes a world record to deny you, that can hardly be regarded as any sort of failure at all.
There was a bit of bad luck. The swimming squad struggled to make semi-finals let alone finals, but might have got a lift if the best swimmer in the squad, Lauren Boyle, had been firing. Instead, Boyle went into the games well short of preparation after losing a lot of training because of health issues. She missed the 400m and 800m freestyle finals (in the 800m she was ninth), and that lift she might have given the squad was missing.
There was a lot of criticism of Rio as an Olympic venue beforehand. It seemed to be some sort of bizarre sport played by the international media to portray the city as poorly as possible in the lead-up. There were tales of dead bodies in the harbour, kidnappings, street robberies, the Zika virus, poisonous sea water, political turmoil, unfinished Olympic facilities, including the athletes’ village…
Instead Rio put on a good Olympics. I had some problems with the traffic, as I do in many big cities. But the sport was great, the spectators loved it, and the city is so beautiful that the backdrop to many events was eye-catching.
A final thought before leaving Rio: in a way New Zealand women really announced themselves at this Olympics. We’ve had many female sports stars before, of course, but never so many, in such a range of sports.
The New Zealand team comprised 201 competitors, almost exactly evenly split between men and women. The women provided 11 of the 18 medals, were involved in eight of the nine fourth placings, and provided many of the most magic moments of the games.
A New Zealand woman, middle-distance runner Nikki Hamblin, was also a central figure in one of the major incidents of the games. After she and American Abbey d’Agnostino tangled and fell early in their 5000m heat, they helped each up to their feet and encouraged each other to finish the race. The International Olympic Committee was so impressed with their sportsmanship, it gave them both entry to the final and later awarded them an International Fair Play award.
If one of sport’s strongest points is that it provides positive role models for youngsters, then New Zealand girls have never had it so good in seeking inspiration from our sports stars.