The games we play, Owen Mann

Sport and the New Zealanders: A History
Greg Ryan and Geoff Watson
Auckland University Press, $65.00,
ISBN 9781869408831

On Christmas Day last year, many people around the country would have ripped open a well-wrapped gift to discover a sportsperson’s biography in their hands. A popular genre in New Zealand for many decades, these publications often span the brief career of the sportsperson and the figures who have influenced their lives. This Christmas it was NBA basketball star Steven Adams and league veteran Simon Mannering that were amongst the bestsellers. These books can, at times, be interesting and perceptive, but rarely explore beyond the biographical. If they do delve into the nature of sport and why it plays such an important part in New Zealand’s culture, then it is only for the particular sport the individual has excelled at, rather than sporting activities more generally, or how sport ties into the fabric of our society and culture.

Historians Greg Ryan and Geoff Watson have combined to write Sport and the New Zealanders: A History, an ambitious, authoritative and compelling exploration of what sports have been played in New Zealand, why people have chosen to participate, and who those participants are. Their book covers the earliest known games played by Māori from pre-European contact through to today. Sport matters in both the telling of and in the creation of history. Analysing and interpreting a nation’s sporting history can be a truly insightful way to gauge attitudes and beliefs over time towards indigenous people, ethnic minorities, women and class. 

Each chapter is thematic and loosely chronological, marking the transition of sports like cricket from rustic and sporadic events within isolated communities to the more structured, administrative and nationally linked sport it is today. Unsurprisingly, this mirrors the broader transition in New Zealand from small colonial outpost of the British Empire to today’s independent liberal democracy. Though, as Ryan and Watson observe, despite the modernising changes in society, and the evolution of this sport, if you were to watch a match of cricket in the 1880s and compare it to what is played today the fundamentals are largely unchanged.

The authors suggest there are no dominant themes that encapsulate New Zealanders’ sporting experience, but there are five major sub-themes: gender, ethnicity, class, commercial sponsorship and government patronage. Each of these sub-themes thread their way through the chapters, ebbing and flowing, depending on major events such as the two World Wars, or major state interventions in the health of citizens, as with the initiatives of the first Labour government in the 1930s.

Sport and the New Zealanders builds on the work of academics, researchers and writers who have previously explored sport’s place in defining New Zealandness. By their own admission, this is not a field of research that has been as extensively investigated here as it has in Britain or Australia. Nevertheless, the contributions of historians such as Charlotte Macdonald, sports writers like Ron Palenski and pioneers in women’s sports history like Sandra Coney, provide much context and insight. The book draws on previously unpublished material and newspaper records. 

Both Ryan and Watson are principal figures in New Zealand academic sports writing. Ryan is Dean of the Faculty for Environment, Society and Design at Lincoln University and his publications include The Making of New Zealand Cricket 1832-1914, while Watson is a senior lecturer in history at Massey University and his previous contribution to the genre includes Legends in Black: New Zealand Rugby Greats and Why We Win. This book, as a result, is well-researched and convincing in its findings, yet still accessible and compelling for a wider audience, not least in exploring rugby’s rural mythology and the sport’s pre-eminence in the narrative of New Zealand’s emerging nationalism.

The authors’ conclusion fits with James Belich’s framework of New Zealand history explored in Paradise Reforged. A country that, from the 1880s, rather than seeking a progressive independence from Britain, instead enters a “recolonial” phase, operating as a distant market town for London, tying New Zealand to Britain both financially and emotionally until well after WWII. New Zealanders would frequently refer to England as “home” and in sport the amateur, not sullied by professionalism, was considered the preferred or required stance of a sportsman. This is because amateurs were thought to embody a certain English refinement and esprit de corps that saw sport as a means of promoting the ideals of manliness, self-sacrifice and athleticism espoused through the school systems of both countries, and central to the notion of British imperial superiority and its manifest destiny as the world’s dominant superpower. It is striking, in Ryan’s and Watson’s work, how the amateur ideal holds on so tenaciously in New Zealand sport well into the 20th century, reflecting Belich’s identification of New Zealand’s ties to English values.

Even so, the underlying challenge to the amateur control of sport in the form of professionalism is never far away. More and more demands are made of sportspeople without fair remuneration. One of the more fascinating aspects of this book is how sporting bodies and individuals manoeuvre around the thorny issue of money. We see how  even relatively recent sportspeople, such as Olympic medalist John Walker, were frustrated by the “shamateur” nature of athletics. (He could not accept prize money directly, but instead was allowed to place it in a trust that could be accessed once his career finished.) 

Each sport tackles professionalism differently, but the authors make the clear point that, from the 1980s, all sports have become, to a greater or lesser degree, commodities within a market forces-driven environment, in which elite athletes can demand sums of money their predecessors could never have dreamed of. The authors lead  us  to conclude that, although it is only fair that sportspeople are remunerated for their skill and commitment, the financial rewards generated through advertising and broadcasting have also dented the nation’s egalitarian image.

Sport and the New Zealanders provides thoughtful discussion on how gender roles have defined what sports were deemed acceptable for men and especially women to participate in and watch, and how this has changed over time. While rigid Victorian notions of femininity that had denied women opportunities in the 19th century gave way to greater tolerance, there is much evidence that women who played sport in traditionally male spheres were met with condescending or sexualised tones by  sports media – which was (and is), of course, dominated by men. In saying that, reading this book one is struck by the determination and success of sportswomen, such as New Zealand’s first female sporting superstar Yvette Williams, who won gold for New Zealand at both the Empire and Olympic games in the 1950s.

What does come across in the later chapters of the book is that this is not a story of inevitable progression and growth in women’s sport and gender equality. While New Zealand can bask in the tremendous achievements of the women’s rugby team, the Black Ferns, the current World Champions, or in the glittering careers of Valerie Adams and Lydia Ko, the number of women in coaching, management and governance roles is still far behind men, and in some sports has seen a decline. Part of the decline is because of the amalgamation of many sports bodies. Where once there were independent men’s and women’s organisations, there is now just one – with few positions held by women. In coaching, the opportunities for women seem primarily concentrated in female-dominated sports like netball.

Rugby is a big part of the New Zealand sporting landscape, as our national sport and a source of anxiety every four years when the World Cup is played for. The 1905 All Black tour of Great Britain was an undoubted success on the field. It has been eulogised in countless sporting publications and was the subject of Lloyd Jones’s verse-novel The Book of Fame. Ryan and Watson suggest that the tour inevitably became a creation myth because of the All Black successes that followed. 

What also emerges is the enduring belief that the success of our national game is largely a result of a rugged and resourceful rural population, and the team’s success is a result of the physical prowess that comes from the heartland farming community in New Zealand. The authors make a compelling case that the reality is quite different. The majority of All Blacks since 1905 come from the larger cities and from more middle-class and white-collar backgrounds. What is so interesting and apparent is that the rural myth and urban reality have remained a constant even into the professional era. All Blacks from farming backgrounds, such as Colin Meads and Brian Lochore, remain the revered All Black totems of yesteryear, as opposed to the more urbane and intellectual Chris Laidlaw or David Kirk. It raises interesting questions about how we, as a nation, like to view and define ourselves in relation to other countries. 

The history of Māori and sport is, unsurprisingly, a complex and multifaceted story in this book, reflecting the broader history of New Zealand race relations. There is a chapter dedicated to the lesser-known pre-European games and the tribal context in which they were played which is very informative. Despite the limited documented examples available as sources, it is clear that Māori engaged very early on in the sports that the British brought with them, and Ryan and Watson reference examples of horse racing, rowing, and rugby for which there are newspaper records of enthusiastic engagement. 

Māori participation in rugby is particularly illuminating. Māori rugby pioneer Tom Ellison was vital in formulating the New Zealand style of play in the late 19th century, and George Nepia revolutionised the fullback position from a primarily defensive role to a far more attacking one in the 1920s. The success of Māori sportspeople has been celebrated for different reasons, and at different times reflected the racial attitudes of the Pākehā population, with Māori athletes referred to as “naturally talented”, or in other coded terms defining a sense of “otherness”. Māori sporting achievement could also be seen concurrently as showing Māori assimilation into British/ Pākehā cultural ideals and norms, signposting successful cultural integration and, at the same time, through teams like Ngāti Porou East Coast Rugby Football Union, as a means of celebrating Māori/iwi culture and identity through sport. 

This complexity is laid bare through our relationship with South Africa, particularly in rugby. For most of the 20th century, New Zealand rugby tacitly accepted South Africa’s apartheid regime by not selecting Māori players like Nepia for tours of the country, and by accepting tours of New Zealand by the Springboks long after most other countries had cut off sporting ties. This showed that, despite the inclusion of Māori in rugby from the game’s inception in New Zealand, the importance of continued sporting bonds between the two countries trumped other concerns, including commitments to equality and biculturalism. The book also illuminates how things have evolved since 1981. New Zealand rugby, and other sports, are now transformed by the growing Pacific Island New Zealand population and by Māori, who dominate selections.

Sport and the New Zealanders is a fine read and a compelling account of why sport matters to New Zealanders and what sports have been played. For those with an interest in New Zealand social history, this book provides a means of explaining and evaluating New Zealanders’ cultural, social and political attitudes and beliefs through the sports we choose to play, support, sponsor and consume. 

Owen Mann is an educator and long-term sports fan.

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Posted in Non-fiction, Review, Sociology, Sport
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