MELBOURNE (Reuters) - Driving along the tree-lined streets of the small New Zealand town of Cambridge and past multi-million-dollar stud farms, it is hard to imagine a less likely setting for a revolution in sports administration.
Rowing New Zealand (RNZ), however, from their spartan headquarters on the banks of Lake Karapiro, a man-made lake on the Waikato River, have produced one of the strongest rowing squads in the world on an annual budget of some four million New Zealand dollars ($3.08 million).
At last year’s world rowing championships in Munich, New Zealand won three gold medals and two silvers while the “next generation” at the under-23 world championships in Glasgow won three golds and a silver.
Of the Beijing Olympics squad selected so far, 11 of the 15 have won senior world titles in the last three years, while Rob Wadell, who was named in the men’s double scull, won gold in the single scull at the Sydney Olympics in 2000.
Women’s single sculler Emma Twigg also won at the world under-23 championships in 2007.
“Medals are important,” said RNZ’s high performance manager Andrew Matheson, summarizing the entire philosophy of his organization in three words and explaining the reason for their shift in focus away from the blue-riband men’s eight crew.
Increased government funding depended on winning several medals, not a single high-profile one, and given the small population of 4.2 million, and even smaller pool of top athletes, RNZ had chosen to split up their elite squad, he explained.
“If you look at where rowing was in the early 1970s and right through to the 1980s, the eights worked for them and they were successful,” said Matheson of RNZ’s earlier focus in the hope of emulating the success of the 1972 Munich gold-medal winners.
“We think a little bit differently and put our top-end athletes into the boats most likely to be successful.
“If we were in the 1970s now, we’d have a boat of Mahe (Drysdale) Rob Waddell, George (Bridgewater), Nathan (Twaddle) and the men’s coxless four and they’d be very successful.
“But on the flip side is that you give up the opportunity for them to be successful in a multitude of other boats.
“Hopefully we will be in a position to grow to the bigger boats but it’s a different philosophy,” he added, pointing out that they were still racing men’s and women’s eights overseas.
While performance-based funding had focused their thinking, a run of poor international results from the late 1980s until mid 1990s helped to sway the organization to adapt the world’s best practice to a uniquely New Zealand setting.
They started by centralizing the high-performance centre at Lake Karapiro, the site of the 1978 world championships and host for the 2010 event, and eventually brought the entire senior, under-23 and junior squads to Cambridge.
The move, Matheson said, enabled them to concentrate sports science and medicine and coaching resources and set up internal competition where boats race against other crews under a handicap system based on world-record times.
“From a rowing perspective, I’d say we’re different from anyone else,” said Matheson when asked if the program was lifted from another country’s.
“There would be very few countries who have centralized the process with the under-23s and the juniors and most would not have the whole of their elite group in one area.
“In bigger programs they may have 40 or 50 coaches working in the program (separately). We have 14 and having them (working) together is definitely far more powerful.
“We have a team approach rather than an individual approach to coaching each boat.
“We are definitely on the extreme compared to most (and) ...it gives us the opportunity to do a lot more with them.”
Despite the success of the rowers in the past four years, Matheson said he was not making any predictions for August’s Beijing Games.
“Our selection criteria is top six with a chance of a medal,” he said with a grin. “We have seven boats qualified for the Games that fit that criteria.
“We believe they will get to the final and if they are performing at their best will be chasing a medal.
“Obviously, medals are important to us, but you have seen in the past where people say they are going to win X number of medals and they don’t and they look silly.
“For us, we have to focus on the process of winning those medals and making sure we have the steps along the way where the structure around them is good, the coaching is good, the support is good and they can succeed.”
Editing by Clare Fallon