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Friday, August 12, 2022

Why Sam Gaze’s golden Commonwealth Games comments can do significant good

SamGaze of New Zealand celebrates winning the men's cross-country mountain bike event at the Commonwealth Games.

James Ross/AAP via Photosport

SamGaze of New Zealand celebrates winning the men’s cross-country mountain bike event at the Commonwealth Games.

Ian Anderson is a senior Stuff sports reporter

OPINION: So medals galore, including a wealth of gold, but what has been talked about by New Zealand’s athletes may end up being more valuable than what they did.

Sam Gaze blitzed the men’s mountain bike field to win back-to-back Commonwealth Games golds and then reflected on his controversial Gold Coast triumph which played a part in the world-class rider battling mental health issues in following years.

“We’re just athletes – we’re human after all. Everyone is exactly the same in this world,” Gaze said.

“My identity [was] maybe attached a bit too much to the sportsperson. I had to try and separate those things over the past four years.”

That it was Gaze, being a standout member of the Cycling NZ team, making such a pointed personal reflection on his identity, has to be significant.

A massive review released in May said Cycling NZ’s high performance programme had a culture of “medals before process”, a lack of transparency and accountability around selection and recruitment, and an environment where gender biases are prevalent.

Sam Gaze and Ben Oliver had a 1-2 finish for New Zealand at Cannock Chase Forest.

Stephen Pond/Getty Images

Sam Gaze and Ben Oliver had a 1-2 finish for New Zealand at Cannock Chase Forest.

It also found New Zealand’s high performance sports system needs a complete rethink to address the “chilling” power imbalance between athletes and sports organisations.

His considered comments don’t have to be a critical breakthrough moment for helping rectify the deep underlying problems within the organisation – and clearly prevalent throughout high performance sport in New Zealand.

But, as is Gaze’s wish, it appears eminently wise to use the sensibly-spoken rider’s pronouncement as a guide.

The Games has been a blessing in that many of this country’s elite athletes have talked openly, emotionally and intelligently about the mental effects the demands imposed on them – externally and internally – by top-level sport.

Backstroker Andrew Jeffcoat, who won gold in Birmingham, said he was “on the brink of depression” after missing out on a place at the Tokyo Olympics.

Andrew Jeffcoat reflects on his gold in the men's 50m backstroke final.

Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

Andrew Jeffcoat reflects on his gold in the men’s 50m backstroke final.

Prior to the Games starting, I wrote: “Given the intense examination of the ill effects of the high performance sport culture in New Zealand in recent years, maybe these Commonwealth Games can prove that excellence and its associated rewards need not be always formulated by one pressure-cooker method which does not suit all.”

Following the brilliant results from the track cyclists in London, sprint coach Nick Flyger said: “The Games are tough. But we’ve still got to work hard, there is still some exceptionally good nations that aren’t here.

“But that’s the fun part, isn’t it? Trying to chase perfection, trying to get all the processes right, that’s what we’re trying to do.”

There’s clearly still processes that aren’t on track yet – it felt that triple gold medallist Aaron Gate got the wrong end of the handlebars after his third gold when he said: “I don’t think we would have raced like we did if we all hated each other.”

Gaze’s “turbulent” time since a staggering triumph on the Gold Coast showed that personal success does not guarantee personal happiness.

There have been a few promising signs over the past 10 days that attention is being paid, work is being done and progress is being made in trying to understand the importance of both.

Where to get help

Lifeline (open 24/7) – 0800 543 354

Depression Helpline (open 24/7) – 0800 111 757

Healthline (open 24/7) – 0800 611 116

Samaritans (open 24/7) – 0800 726 666

Suicide Crisis Helpline (open 24/7) – 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO). This is a service for people who may be thinking about suicide, or those who are concerned about family or friends.

Youthline (open 24/7) – 0800 376 633. You can also text 234 for free between 8am and midnight, or email [email protected]

0800 WHATSUP children’s helpline – phone 0800 9428 787 between 1pm and 10pm on weekdays and from 3pm to 10pm on weekends. Online chat is available from 7pm to 10pm every day.

Kidsline (open 24/7) – 0800 543 754. This service is for children aged 5 to 18. Those who ring between 4pm and 9pm on weekdays will speak to a Kidsline buddy. These are specially trained teenage telephone counsellors.

Your local Rural Support Trust – 0800 787 254 (0800 RURAL HELP)

Alcohol Drug Help (open 24/7) – 0800 787 797. You can also text 8691 for free.

For further information, contact the Mental Health Foundation‘s free Resource and Information Service (09 623 4812).

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