Sport has been an important part of military life, building skills, character and fitness, and boosting morale. New Zealanders’ achievements in rugby and war have contributed to the stereotype of the rugged Kiwi male.
Sport was played by military personnel both in New Zealand and overseas. Before the mid-1950s troops overseas were mostly civilian soldiers, who brought their sporting interests from home.
In the 19th century troops played sports that needed few facilities, such as boxing, athletics, tug-of-war and rifle shooting. In towns where troops were stationed, they played team games, including cricket and rugby. Military tournaments involved military-related activities such as bayonet fighting, signalling and horse sports.
South African War
Troops stationed in South Africa from 1899 to 1902 held sports days. They played cricket and rugby, and more unusual sports such as wrestling on mules.
First World War
At first during the First World War military authorities saw sport as a distraction, but from 1916 they encouraged sport as a morale booster. New Zealanders took part in rugby, horse sports, boxing, athletics and cricket. New Zealand teams played against other countries – several ‘All Black’ soldiers’ teams competed successfully in Europe, as did rowers, runners and a Māori (Pioneer) Battalion rugby team.
Second World War
Sport was encouraged in 2NZEF (the 2nd New Zealand Expeditionary Force), whose commander, Bernard Freyberg, had been a champion swimmer and rugby player. A swimming pool was built at Maadi Camp in Egypt, and swimming and athletics competitions were held. Rugby was a major focus, including games against South African teams. Prisoners of war also played sport to pass the time and boost morale.
The smaller New Zealand forces that served in Asian wars after 1945 also played rugby. Troops in the US-dominated wars in Korea and Vietnam sometimes took up American sports such as baseball or ice hockey.
Sport became well organised and extensive in the regular armed forces from the mid-1950s, with many inter-service competitions. As the number of women in the military increased, more women also took part in sport.