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Story: Sport and the nation

Many New Zealanders are passionate about sport, especially about the All Blacks rugby team. Sporting wins have allowed the small country to make its mark on a world stage and the country has united behind its sportspeople. But sport has also caused division, especially in the 1970s and early 1980s when New Zealand maintained sporting contact with apartheid South Africa.

Story by Jock Phillips
Main image: Fans at a football game between the All Whites and Bahrain, 2009

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Defining the nation

Sport has long been something that has united New Zealanders and made them proud of their country. For small nations sporting success is something that can make an impact on an international stage.

First national sporting stars

In the late 1800s New Zealand began to achieve international success in sport, and New Zealanders followed these achievements with pride. Some early examples are:

  • long-distance walker Joe Scott who visited Britain in 1887–88 and won many races
  • the racehorse Carbine, which won the Melbourne Cup in 1890.

Early national teams

National sports teams began to tour overseas in the late 1800s. The New Zealand Native rugby team visited Britain in 1888–89. It raised interest in Māori culture overseas, and was the first team to use a silver fern on a black background. This has became a common feature of New Zealand sports uniforms.

The All Blacks, New Zealand’s national rugby team, first toured the United Kingdom in 1905–6, and won 34 of their 35 matches. The 1924–25 All Blacks (known as the Invincibles, because they won all their matches) also toured the United Kingdom. These teams were seen to represent New Zealand’s national character as strong outdoor men with natural leadership qualities. Both teams were welcomed back to New Zealand with large public events.

Sport stars, 1900 to 1970

While rugby was the dominant sport in these years, other sporting successes strengthened New Zealanders’ national pride, such as:

  • New Zealand-bred racehorse Phar Lap winning the 1930 Melbourne Cup
  • Jack Lovelock winning the gold medal for the 1,500 metres at the 1936 Berlin Olympics
  • Yvette Williams winning gold medals at the Olympic and Empire Games in the 1950s – she was one of the few women to achieve widespread recognition in New Zealand sports at this time
  • runners Peter Snell and Murray Halberg winning gold medals at the 1960 Olympics.

The masculine, outdoorsy New Zealand identity was strengthened when Edmund Hillary and the Nepalese Sherpa Tenzing Norgay were the first to climb Mt Everest, the world’s highest mountain, in 1953.

Sport and national debate, 1970 to 1990

In the 1970s New Zealand began to broadcast television coverage of sporting events, which meant people could follow sports events as they happened. Television also brought attention to many lesser-known sports in which New Zealanders were successful, including events in the Olympic and Commonwealth Games.

New Zealand’s continued sporting relationship with South Africa, which at the time had a system of racial segregation (apartheid), led to international criticism. Most African countries boycotted the 1976 Olympics because the All Blacks were again touring South Africa. New Zealanders were also divided over this issue. Conflict reached a peak in 1981 when the South African Springbok rugby team toured New Zealand. There were protests throughout the country and New Zealanders debated with each other what values the country stood for. Many turned their backs on rugby. When the All Blacks won the first Rugby World Cup in 1987 they restored some national pride.

Sport and the nation since 1990

In the 1990s New Zealanders got behind yachting teams, especially in the America’s Cup, which Team New Zealand won in 1995 and successfully defended in 2000.

Women’s achievement in sport became more widely recognised, with teams such as the Silver Ferns (netball) and the Black Ferns (rugby), and individual female athletes winning world championships and Olympic medals.

There was also growing recognition of the successes of Pacific sportspeople in New Zealand.

In 2011, 24 years after their last win, the All Blacks won the Rugby World Cup, causing much celebration – and relief – in New Zealand.

Sport and creative culture

Sport and creative arts have not often mixed in New Zealand. One place they have is in the opening ceremonies of the 1974 and 1990 Commonwealth Games, and the 2011 Rugby World Cup.

In literature, rugby in particular has often been symbolic of a conformist and emotionally repressed society. Rugby is the dominant sport represented in films and television programmes.

How to cite this page:

Jock Phillips, 'Sport and the nation', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/sport-and-the-nation (accessed 26 June 2017)

Story by Jock Phillips, published 5 Sep 2013