Politics and Sport don’t mix – or do they? National Identity and New Zealand’s Participation in the Olympic Games
Sports matter. Today sport is one of the most enduring social events that humans from across the world participate in, no matter their race, religion or gender. Moreover, the biggest of all those sporting events is the Olympic Games, which is held every four years. The modern version of the Games was founded by Frenchman Baron Pierre de Coubertin and first took place in Athens in 1896. New Zealand first competed alongside Australia as Australasia in London 1908 and Stockholm 1912. Following the games of 1916 which were cancelled due to World War I, New Zealand has competed as a sovereign nation since Antwerp 1920. Since 1908, over 1200 New Zealanders have competed at the Olympic Games, winning more than 100 medals. That performance in itself makes New Zealand one of the most successful nations in Olympic history on a per capita basis. That statistic alone underscores the relationship between the Olympics and national identity, as an embodiment of New Zealanders believing they ‘punch above their weight’ on the world stage. Benedict Anderson wrote about the imagined community, where the nation is imagined because it is impossible for every citizen to know each other.¹ This research has found that sporting teams like the All Blacks and the New Zealand Olympic Team are perfect avenues to help create this imagined community. New Zealand’s national identity is not fixed, it has evolved, but the one mainstay of that identity is the sense of being an underdog on the world stage. The research has found that over the past three decades New Zealand governments have increasingly woken up to the importance of high-performance sport and following the disappointment of the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games, funding was increased, which has led to better results and more medals. Today New Zealand athletes are funded on a per-capita basis just as well as many other nations we would compare ourselves with. New Zealand politicians have been quick to associate themselves alongside sportsmen and women and often speak about the close link that exists between sport and identity in New Zealand. However, unlike Australia, New Zealand does not have a national sports museum, and also unlike Australia, and the United Kingdom, New Zealand legislation does not allow for free-to-air television coverage of games of national significance. New Zealand does not adequately showcase its sporting history, and this has the potential to negatively affect the importance New Zealanders place on sport and the Olympic Movement as an important part of its national identity. Ultimately this research has found that the New Zealand Olympic Team epitomises what it means to be a New Zealander and has found that across multiple levels of analysis, the Olympic Movement has significantly contributed to the development of New Zealand’s national identity. More broadly, the Olympic Games have become a key avenue in which that national identity can be projected to the world. ¹ Benedict Anderson, ‘Imagined Communities,’ (London: Verso, 2006), pp.6-7.