This book traces the history of sport in New Zealand, and it covers most of the recorded history of the country, including an initial chapter for the pre-1840 era. It is also a book written by two academics, rather than sports journalists or fans. This does not really affect how it reads, but there are 40 pages of endnotes at the back. And it seems that sport has been the topic of significant scholarship within the universities.
It is certainly well-written and will be of interest to any sports enthusiasts in New Zealand that want a long read. 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. So anyone expecting a lot of detail on recent professional sportspeople will actually find the balance tipped back towards the amateur era. The book 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.
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 weaved 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.
The captions can also be misleading: e.g. the one of the ‘football supporters’ holding a banner at the national team’s triumphant win over China in 1982. The supporters are obviously two of the actual players, sans their shirts, namely Adrian Elrick and the especially hirsute Bobby Almond. Almond, like many of the other immigrant team members (and coaches), still retained the broad regional accents of their home country. And with this came a different sporting culture, one that was still foreign.
Indeed, the comments of the authors on the development of football in New Zealand are tentative, and somewhat inaccurate. They point to the lack of an effective national administration, and middle class participation, as well as an emphasis on the clubs. When referring to the club known as ‘Stop Out’, they misleadingly state that it was created in Te Aro (Wellington), when it has always been based out in Lower Hutt. It is possible to quibble with such details, but the book is still a very good overview.
Reviewed by Simon Boyce
Sport and the New Zealanders: A History
by Greg Ryan & Geoff Watson
Published by AUP