by Greg Ryan & Geoff Watson
This book, which traces the history of sport in New Zealand, will be of interest to any sports enthusiasts in New Zealand who want a long read. It covers most of the recorded history of the country, including an initial chapter for the pre-1840 era.
It is written by two academics, rather than sports journalists or fans, and shows that sport has been a topic of significant scholarship within the universities. There are 40 pages of endnotes at the back.
The book is certainly well-written. However, the authors do place their story within an academic context, and the historiography of the wider society, which results in an emphasis on the early years. It is very much a social history of sport, followed by an assessment of the effects of the commercialism of sport, and societal change on the mass participation in sport. So anyone expecting a lot of detail on recent professional sportspeople will actually find the balance tipped back towards the amateur era.
It has to be said that much of the focus of the authors is upon the development of rugby union, even though many sports are woven into the narrative. This can be justified on the idea that rugby is the ‘national game’, and has the broadest range of participants in terms of town and country. It certainly has the most popular depth, and therefore commercial appeal. And it has developed over time, as we witness the increased participation of urban Pasifika players, and the rise of the women’s game. But inevitably the sporting links with South Africa have to be covered, and the 1981 Springbok Tour examined, especially as other sports had a temporary moment in the limelight. Questions remain over whether one dominant sport is helpful to the others.
While the text moves into the emphasis on commercialised sport and the elite level, there is another perspective provided by the photographic plates. All of these are presented well in black and white, and the most recent is from the 1980s (apart from two cartoons). The research for these photos in the archives has provided an emphasis on the participation of ordinary folk, with a few elite national representatives from yesteryear. The only downside is that the participants are mostly unknown, and the places are sometimes vague as well. The photo for the cover is also a curious choice: an unknown weightlifter at the Petone Recreation Ground, circa 1956. There seems to be no weightlifter mentioned in the text, even for the 1974 Commonwealth Games.
Some of us may want to see the Christchurch Commonwealth Games as something of a high point, before the political controversies of the later 1970s, and the rampant commercialism of more recent times. The authors contemplate the issues of social change for its effect on sport in the chapter “And Sport for All?”, and in a brief conclusion. Certainly, there is more diversity in sport, with stereotypes of sexuality being challenged and overcome; and there has been more focus on disabled and Paralympian participation, with some particular individuals becoming prominent.
However, the ‘prominence’ of individuals reflects the commercial branding that they can achieve, even within a team culture. The overriding commercial imperative in modern professional sport is acknowledged by the authors, but they emphasise the continuity in the sporting culture in New Zealand. Perhaps there is still a strong element of an amateur culture, but it now appears that money actually rules the game.
Author: Greg Ryan & Geoff Watson
Publisher: Auckland University Press