New Zealand has enjoyed a vintage year of success on the international stage. Steve Landells speaks to Athletics NZ High Performance Director Scott Goodman on a stunning 2016 and what plans are in place to maintain that high level of success.
How would you assess the 2016 campaign?
To have three medallists at the World Indoor Championships and all five athletes to finish in the top eight was a great start to the year. Then we managed to maintain that success at both the Rio Olympic Games and Paralympic Games. To win four medals in Rio was pretty extraordinary because we had four medal chances and when you compare it to the performance of countries such as Germany, who had ten or 12 medal chances but only won three medals, we can take kudos from that. Sure, all the stars aligned for us to achieve that, but I think we also managed the situation very well. I guess the next challenge is, how do we repeat that success?
What factors did you put in place to help manage the success?
From the beginning of the season we allowed our marquee level athletes such as Valerie, Tom and Nick (and later Eliza) a reasonable amount of flexibility around their preparation. This was a different approach to many countries, who operate a regimented system whereby their athletes have to come through pre-camps. The philosophy behind organised camps is to promote team culture, which has come from the swimming model. This is much easier to achieve in a sport such as swimming because all the athletes train out of one pool at a designated time. This is much more difficult to achieve in a sport like athletics which has throwers, jumpers and runners. We had a pre-Olympic camp in Mannheim and while we invest in camps and encourage people to come along, it that made no sense for middle-distance runners Hamish (Carson) or Julian (Matthews), for example, to attend. They had achieved much of their success by training with Nick and his training group. Where it was logical we were keen to adopt a flexible approach.
The Paralympic athletes performed magnificently well to snare nine medals. What factors contributed to the success of the squad?
I can’t give enough credit to Raylene Bates (Athletics NZ High Performance Para athlete Manager) and her role in managing the group. New Zealand didn’t win any medals in London, yet to come away from Rio and win nine medals was testament to the amount of time and energy Raylene devoted to the programme. Raylene genuinely drove that whole process by nurturing the athletes and helping place them in good coaching environments. You rarely put any success down to one person, but, in this instance, if we hadn’t had Raylene we almost certainly would not have got anything like the level of results we went on to achieve.
What can you now put in place to maintain the current level of success high performance athletes are enjoying in New Zealand?
With the success of Jeremy’s (McColl) programme we are looking at finding an assistant to support him, so he can travel with his athletes more and also so he has greater scope to coach more of the young kids who want to train with him. We are looking at doing something similar with Dale Stevenson (coach to Tom Walsh) in Christchurch. We want him to be able to travel with Tom, but we also want him to be able to look after his other athletes such as shot putter Ryan Ballantyne and hammer thrower Lauren Bruce. We are working with the likes of endurance coaches Steve Willis and Maria Hassan to build collaborative training opportunities in Wellington and Christchurch. We’ve put on an event such as Throwsfest, targeting the next generation of throwers. We are keen to use these initiatives to further boost interest in our sport, which is riding high after the Olympics. It is amazing to see the enthusiasm and keenness of young kids who want to try our sport, which just wasn’t there 12 to 18 months ago.
Has the success surprised you?
It is interesting. Do you go hard with selection standards and run a risk with team size? I remember there was a lot of noise around this at the time of the 2014 Commonwealth Games. Yet in Rio we had a team of 14 attend the Games, which was larger and more successful than the teams in Beijing and London. The sport of athletics can introduce many new innovative ideas such as street pole vault etc but the most important point to remember is, if athletes succeed in the pinnacle events then this creates interest and goodwill in the sport.
In the past you said the targeted events groups have been throws and middle-distance, has that changed with the success enjoyed in the pole vault?
We’ve been through a review process and at the moment our priority event group is throws, our targeted event group is distance and the next priority is pole vault. We also have to make sure we have the resources available to support any breakthrough athlete, who might emerge in another event.
Looking ahead to 2017 what is New Zealand’s approach towards the World U18 Championships, World Cross Country Championships and World Relays?
We’ve had no expressions of interest in World Cross Country Championships and I know there are a few concerns about the venue of the World U18 Championships in Nairobi, so the board will make a decision and advise on whether to send a team. Next year there is also a Commonwealth Youth Games in Bahamas, so we might decide to take a look at that, as a competitive opportunity for that age group. As for World Relays the cost of getting athletes to Bahamas means it does not sit with our plans. There is no longer a distance medley relay on the programme and although we could look at the women’s 4x800m to take five athletes plus a physio and a coach will cost $25,000 and we’ll have to weigh that up against other priorities.
What are the main goals for 2017?
We hope the key performers in Rio will back up well at the World Championships in London. Zane and Jake Robertson have a new support structure and are looking to set up in the marathon, although 2017 might come a little early. I see 2017 as a year of consolidation, plus it also presents an opportunity for the younger athletes to have a crack into making their first team. On the para-side our main goal is to bring in some new talent, particularly out of Auckland and Waikato.
What was your personal highlight of 2016?
It was the opportunity and honour to be under the stadium with the successful athletes (in Rio), especially when I helped reconnect them back with their families. To stand in the background and watch Eliza reconnect with her parents and boyfriend for the first time since winning an Olympic medal was very emotional.
And any major disappointments in 2016?
The lack of movement by international bodies to do anything about the WADA non-compliant countries continue to be a huge disappointment.