Story: Government and sport

Page 5. Politics of sport

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Sport has been political for as long as politicians have seen benefit in associating themselves with winning teams. When the New Zealand rugby team returned from a successful 1893 tour of Australia it was lauded by both the premier and the leader of the opposition. Premier Richard Seddon was in the grandstand when New Zealand beat Great Britain in 1904, and he greeted the 1905/6 Originals rugby team on their return to Auckland.

When the 2011 election campaign kicked off after the Rugby World Cup final, the All Blacks’ victory was seen as boosting the government’s re-election prospects.

Just not cricket

Cricket largely escaped the nationwide controversy about sporting relations with South Africa. There was a polite protest against a 1961 men’s cricket tour of South Africa and the South Africans were picketed when they toured New Zealand in 1964. After 1973 contacts ceased, and from 1983 New Zealanders who played in South Africa were ineligible for national selection. With apartheid crumbling, South Africa played in New Zealand during the 1992 World Cup tournament.

Sport and South Africa

Politics has most notably entered sport with respect to South African teams. While in New Zealand sporting participation was ostensibly colour-blind, in South Africa non-white sportspeople were generally unable to compete alongside whites until 1992.

From 1948 sporting separation was part of the South African government’s policy of apartheid. Officially this meant ‘separate development’. In practice it meant the institutionalised oppression of the non-white majority by the white minority. Rugby was inevitably affected as New Zealand and white South Africa were the world’s leading rugby nations. However, it had an impact on other sports as well. Here are the main events in this story:

  • 1921: A fractious rugby match took place in Napier between the South African Springboks and New Zealand Māori. Aftewards a South African reporter expressed anger that white New Zealanders supported the Māori team.
  • 1928: Māori were ruled ineligible for the All Blacks team to South Africa.
  • 1949: Protests took place against the exclusion of Māori from the All Blacks team going to South Africa.
  • 1960: 160,000 people signed a petition opposing the All Blacks tour of South Africa.
  • 1966: Prime Minister Keith Holyoake insisted that Māori be included in future All Black teams to South Africa, and the Rugby Union declined an invitation to tour in 1967.
  • 1970: Māori and Polynesians played leading roles in the All Blacks team in South Africa.
  • 1971: A surf-lifesaving test in which South Africans were participating was disrupted. South Africans were excluded from both the New Zealand Centennial Golf Tournament and the women’s hockey world championships. However, the organisation Halt All Racist Tours (HART) failed to persuade male softballers and female cricketers not to tour South Africa.
  • 1973: The Labour government cancelled the 1973 Springbok tour of New Zealand.
  • 1975: The National party made freedom of ‘sporting contacts’ an election issue and won a landslide victory.
  • 1976: The opening of the world softball championships in Lower Hutt, in which a South African team competed, hosted more protesters than spectators.
  • 1976: Thirty nations boycotted the Montreal Olympics in protest against New Zealand participation while the All Blacks toured South Africa.
  • 1981: An urban-based anti-apartheid movement coordinated by HART protested robustly against a Springbok tour of New Zealand with substantial support in provincial areas. Strong-arm policing resulted in many injuries, but only two matches were cancelled. The tour cost taxpayers $7.2 million ($27.5 million in 2013 terms).
  • 1984: The Labour government banned South African sports teams from New Zealand.
  • 1985: The High Court granted an injunction against an imminent All Blacks tour of South Africa on the grounds that it would be against rugby’s best interests. Almost the entire squad went the next year instead, as the ‘Cavaliers’.
  • 1992: As apartheid had been abolished, the African National Congress acknowledged that rugby in South Africa was now ‘non-racial’ and the All Blacks made a brief tour of South Africa.

Other political issues

The New Zealand government pressured its sporting bodies and athletes not to compete at the 1980 Moscow Olympics because of the Soviet Union’s military intervention in Afghanistan. In the event only four of the team of 100 did compete. New Zealand’s medal haul at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics was bolstered by a tit-for-tat Eastern bloc boycott.

In the 2000s an Israeli competitor in the annual women’s professional tennis tournament at Auckland attracted protesters against Israeli policies. Sporting contacts with Zimbabwe and Fiji, which have had authoritarian regimes, have also been controversial.

How to cite this page:

David Green, 'Government and sport - Politics of sport', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/government-and-sport/page-5 (accessed 19 December 2018)

Story by David Green, published 5 Sep 2013