Mike Stanley closes a significant chapter in New Zealand sport when his term as President of the New Zealand Olympic Committee ends in October.
Mike had a long term as President, from 2009-22, and he was never just a figurehead in the role. With a CV that includes being a double world champion rower, and a progressive Chief Executive of Rowing New Zealand, he was always going to be a heavily involved Olympic Committee President. He brought sage advice, enthusiasm, a calming influence and wide sports knowledge to the job.
Not that he’ll be lost to New Zealand sport. Since 2004, he’s been Chief Executive of AUT Millennium, the high performance, sport and recreation facility on the North Shore, and he plans to continue in that role. In fact, it was that position that enabled him to remain as President of the Olympic Committee for so long.
His Olympic Committee responsibilities took up a considerable portion of his time, even when he was in New Zealand, quite besides attending Olympic and Commonwealth Games and other sports festivals and meetings overseas. Without having a fulltime job, especially one that valued his role with the Olympic Committee, it would have been difficult to remain President for as long. He is extremely grateful to the AUT Millennium board and senior staff for their unstinting support.
That also explains why the role of President of the NZOC is being split into two on Mike’s departure. The scope of the role has expanded, driven by the increased number of Games New Zealand now competes in, growing international commitments and the governance of a high-performing organisation that has had to more than treble in size and turnover to keep pace with the needs of athletes and stakeholders.
Mike’s family moved from Pinehaven in the Hutt Valley to Takapuna in 1971, when he was 13, and he attended Westlake Boys High School, which turned out to have a major influence on the way his sports career – and therefore his life – developed.
“At High School, I was a rugby player primarily [including three years as first XV captain], though I played a lot of sports. The first XV coach liked his players to do rowing in the summer. He thought it benefited them physically and also demanded a degree of commitment and discipline that would help their rugby.”
Taking up rowing was no hardship for Mike. “I watched the film of the New Zealand men’s eight winning that famous gold medal at the 1972 Olympic Games and found it inspiring.” He became part of a strong rowing scene at Westlake and was in the school’s Maadi Cup rowing eight in 1974 and 1975, part of an impressive eight.
On leaving school he was chosen for the New Zealand under-23 team in 1976 and 1977 and was a reserve for the New Zealand rowing squad at the 1978 world championships, which were held at Lake Karapiro.
Having the world championships in New Zealand provided further inspiration for a rising rower.
In 1980 Mike was chosen to go to the Moscow Olympic Games as part of the coxed four. Those plans were scuppered when the Government indicated it wanted New Zealand to boycott the Olympic Games, in support of the boycott stance of the Americans.
“I was only young, so perhaps I wasn’t as devastated as some of the older competitors, who knew this would be quite possibly their only chance to compete at the Olympic Games. Even so, you never know what’s ahead and it was very disappointing.”
It was a strange time and Mike recalls being warned by police at one point to be careful what he took out of his letterbox, in case there was a bomb in there.
To somewhat compensate for the Olympic boycott, the rowing squad, including Mike, competed at international regattas in Europe in 1980.
The following year, he moved up to the prestige eight crew. “It was an unusual year. Some rowers who’d missed out on the Olympic Games were unavailable and some young guys, including me I suppose, got in. Things didn’t go as planned and we ended up seventh at the world champs and missed out on the final, which was devastating.”
Bouncing back from that disappointment, Mike was in the eight that won the world title at Lucerne, Switzerland, in 1982. “Our crew was rejigged from the previous year, and included some new faces, new ways of training and experiments with seating order to get the right combination. I was originally selected in the number 2 seat, but was moved to stroke midway through our preparation. The crew trained well and we felt cautiously optimistic following a pretty sharp time trial before leaving.”
The New Zealanders had no racing before Lucerne, just two weeks of training at their European base. Under coach Harry Mahon, the eight rowed brilliantly at the world champs. They smashed the Soviet Union in their heat and in the final made a very strong start and then cranked up the pace over the second half of the race to win by a length from East Germany, with the Soviet Union third.
That performance subsequently won the eight the 1982 Sportsman of the Year crown, now the Halberg Award, and eventually induction into the New Zealand Sports Hall of Fame.
With two changes, the New Zealanders backed up that performance with another world title at Duisburg in 1983. “It wasn’t quite such a smooth road. We lost in our heat and had to progress through the repechage into the final. But the final went to plan.”
The eight were gold medal contenders at the Los Angeles Olympic Games, the more so when the Communist bloc boycotted the games in retaliation for the 1980 Western boycott of Moscow.
“We missed out on a medal. We got left behind at the start of the final, and couldn’t really make any headway in our second half push. In the end we were fourth behind Canada, who we’d beaten in the heat, the USA and Australia. It was a shock and hard to handle.”
Mike continued to row, but didn’t make New Zealand teams over the next couple of years and retired from competition. He tried something different during the 1986 Edinburgh Commonwealth Games, the last time rowing was on the Commonwealth Games schedule.
“TVNZ invited me to be on its commentary team, so I did that and enjoyed it.” Since then Mike has been a regular rowing commentator for national and international coverage, including two Olympic Games and multiple world championships.
Mike was sports master at Westlake Boys High from 1988-94, after which he moved closer to rowing again as Chief Executive of Rowing New Zealand, a job he held until 2003.
It was an important time for New Zealand rowing, spanning the rise of women’s rowing, notably world champions Philippa Baker and Brenda Lawson, the emergence of single sculls world and Olympic champion Rob Waddell, and then the rise of a clutch of future world champions, such as the Evers-Swindell twins and Mahe Drysdale.
“New Zealand Rowing was at a crossroads and something needed to change. Our rowers had to be training in a high-quality environment year round if we wanted more of them to be really competitive, including in bigger boats. We were confident the talent was there and started to work on the rowing programme. We hired Steve Gunn, a top British coach, and Dick Tonks came into the programme with his coaching expertise.
“That led to the formation of a summer squad. The Sports Foundation chipped in and we were able to get some better boats from Europe. Some wise heads who knew rowing and what was required for success got involved, including Olympians Barry Mabbott [bronze 1984) as an astute high performance commissioner, and Conrad Robertson [gold 1984] and Athol Earl [gold 1972, bronze 1976] as long-term selectors. Lisa Holten was the glue that held it all together and she is still with Rowing NZ today. Gradually the national squad became based fulltime at Karapiro, but our resources were modest.
“It was uncomfortable at first. There was tension with some of the clubs when their top rowers were taken away to train at Karapiro. At first we didn’t get the results internationally, and that made things difficult. But eventually the results started coming, the fulltime national squad concept came to be accepted and it’s now been developed by Rowing New Zealand into a world-class programme.”
Besides being heavily involved in rowing, including a six-year stint on the New Zealand Rowing board, Mike - who’d competed in basketball, tennis, athletics and rugby as well as rowing at school - followed most New Zealand sports closely. He became a New Zealand Olympic Committee board member in 2004 and succeeded Eion Edgar as President of the board in 2009.
“I was there for two meetings when John Davies was President, but tragically John died of cancer soon after. He was a great guy, a gentleman. After that Sir Eion Edgar, a real optimist and team builder, took over as President.”
Mike is effusive about the performance of the New Zealand Olympic Committee board and administration during his time as President. “I’ve been privileged to serve alongside so many passionate, capable board members who give their time freely and generously. I’ve learned from all of them.
“We were very fortunate to have in Barry Maister and Kereyn Smith, two terrific chief executives, now followed by Nicki Nicol. Barry and Kereyn are special people who were a pleasure to work with.”
“Our teams were equally fortunate to be so well led and supported. Dave Currie was an innovative Chef de Mission who did so much to foster the ‘team’ concept. That was built on by Rob Waddell and Nigel Avery, and Pete Wardell and Marty Toomey for the winter teams, all ably guided and assisted by team services director Jake Wilkins and others within the NZOC. They’ve built great teams of support staff who give their very best. Our athletes feel so at home during Games, and draw a lot of strength from being part of such a supportive team.”
The performance of New Zealand athletes over the past two decades has improved immeasurably. At Sydney in 2000 we won only one gold medal – Rob Waddell in the single sculls – and four medals in all.
“Compare that to what followed at the Olympic Games, building up to the record number of medals and many quality performances at Rio and then Tokyo. That’s been matched by success at the Commonwealth Games.”
Mike says one impressive aspect has been the breadth of the New Zealanders’ performances. “We used to have a few sports we were traditionally strong in. But look at what’s happened – medals in shooting, canoe slalom, trampolining, women’s pole vault, boxing, tennis – and some really great world figures like Dame Val Adams, Nick Willis, Tom Walsh, Dame Lisa Carrington, and several of our rowers, sailors and cyclists.
“Also, we’ve become increasingly competitive at Winter Olympic Games. For many years Annelise Coberger was our only Winter Olympic Games medallist, but Zoi Sadowski-Synnott and Nico Porteous both won medals at each of the last two Winter Olympic Games and several others have just missed.
“The results mirror the great working relationship NZOC has with High Performance Sport New Zealand and our member sports. It’s strengthened over the years and is one of the cornerstones of our sports success.”
Mike notes it’s not always been easy. “Probably because the Olympic Games, especially, but also the Commonwealth Games, have such a high profile, there have been some dramas along the way.
“Delhi in 2010 was one of those. When the leadership team got to Delhi they found conditions in the athletes village so bad they didn’t feel they could bring our team in until significant improvements were made. Other nations held a similar view. That position put the organisers on notice and finally the necessary improvements were made.
“There were similar problems, though not quite as severe, with unfinished apartments confronting our advance guard when they got to Rio in 2016. There was also that glitch in 2012 when an administrative error briefly looked as if it might prevent Dame Valerie Adams from competing.
“But all that paled compared to the problems we had in sending teams to Tokyo and Beijing for the Summer (2021) and Winter Olympic Games (2022) and having to deal with the Covid situation. It required a huge amount of preparation and planning to enable us to field full teams and to do everything we could to keep our athletes safe while they were at the games.
“I thought the New Zealand Olympic Committee staff were fantastic in the lengths they went to to give all our athletes the best possible chance of not only competing, but performing up to their best. They had the admiration and full support of the board.”
When he looks back to his time as an Olympic competitor and compares it to the modern era, Mike says the team aspect has grown immensely, and that there is vastly better communication with athletes, particularly through the NZOC Athletes’ Commission. He fully supports athlete participation in governance and decision-making at all levels. Another notable change has been the embracing of tikanga Māori and the culture of Manaaki within the New Zealand Team.
“It started with Dave Currie and Richard de Groen in the early 2000s . They recognised the importance of embracing our nation’s Māori whakapapa in the Games team culture and that aspect has been built on since, right across the organisation.
“We have had guidance and advice from some great people – Amster Reedy, Tā Derek Lardelli and Rānui Ngārimu. It’s been very rewarding to see it develop and become so meaningful.
“I feel it defines us now and makes us a stronger team, a stronger organisation. It’s a huge source of pride and perhaps it gets another one percent of performance out of some competitors, and at an Olympic Games that might be enough to get a personal best performance, a medal or turn a medal into gold.”
Mike says another aspect that has advanced markedly has been the increase in opportunities for women in sport. “It’s great to see women being so successful in all roles across sport. These days a lot of our sports heroes are women. That’s been very gratifying – it’s great for the Olympic movement and for our country, too, but there’s still more to do.”
It’s a fair bet that even as he closes the door on his time as New Zealand Olympic Committee President, Mike will remain close to sport, and not only as chief executive of AUT Millennium.
Mike was awarded the Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to sport in 2016 and quite beside his rowing and Olympic Committee contributions, he was an Olympic and Commonwealth Games selector, Chairman of the New Zealand Academy of Sport North Island and in 2010 helped to establish High Performance Sport New Zealand, of which he was a board member until 2017.
Mike and his wife Jane have three adult children. Besides his family, he has a range of other interests, some well removed from sport.
He still does some rowing coaching and is President of North Shore Rowing Club. He also chairs the Kauri Rescue Trust (working with private land owners to treat kauri with kauri dieback) and the Hobsonville Point Marine Sport Recreation Centre Trust. That plus conservation work with Jane on their Auckland and Northland properties means he still won’t have enough hours in the day, unless of course it’s for surfing and a spot of fly fishing.
But he’s sure he’ll remain as committed as ever to sport. “It’s time someone else took over the Presidency,” says Mike, “but I’ve loved the role and am always ready to help. I’ll always be our games teams’ biggest supporter.”Mike Stanley