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Government and sport

by David Green

The government has always involved itself in sport – to boost national morale and promote health. It has made laws about physical education in schools, funded elite teams and taken stands on international sports issues.

Support for children’s sport

Government support for sport was focused on children until the late 1930s when adult fitness also became a state concern.

Sports grounds

In New Zealand’s colonial period, state support for sport was limited to some provision of grounds and the gradual introduction of games in schools.

In 1855 Canterbury’s provincial government set aside Hagley Park for recreation and public enjoyment. Two years later Wellington province created the Basin Reserve for the same purpose, with an emphasis on cricket. Prisoners from nearby Mt Cook Prison helped prepare the Basin Reserve, but most such developments relied on voluntary labour and private fundraising.

Public schools

The first public schools provided their students with simple equipment such as cricket bats and footballs.

The Education Act 1877, which established free, compulsory primary education, declared, ‘whenever practicable there shall be attached to each school a playground of at least a quarter of an acre’. In rural areas paddocks next to schools were utilised. Urban schools used nearby vacant lots. Military drill for boys was mandatory, while ‘physical training’ was a matter for individual boards.

Playing fields were rudimentary until the late 19th century, when local councils began to develop sports grounds.

The importance of physical health for young people was increasingly recognised. Classes performed gymnastic exercises outdoors. However, organised sport was largely confined to secondary schools, apart from annual sports days at primary schools.

The native schools established from 1867 were provided with sports equipment, as colonists believed that Māori boys who played cricket and rugby were less likely to take up arms against them in later life.

From 1902 it was compulsory for all public school children over the age of eight to be taught ‘physical drill’, unless their headmaster exempted them. Teacher training in this subject was systematised, and in 1912 Royd Garlick was appointed as New Zealand’s first director of physical education. The rise of ‘phys-ed’ coincided with the dropping of military training for boys under 14. However, impetus was lost with the onset of the First World War and Garlick’s death in 1915.

In the 1920s the focus of physical education became correct posture, rather than sport.

The value of sweat

In 1910 the Principal of the Auckland Teachers’ College argued: ‘The longer I live the more I am convinced of the need of active sweating exercise followed by cold baths, for young people – it cleans them physically and mentally.’1

Play areas

In the 1920s local authorities followed the North American example by employing supervisors, generally women, for children’s play areas. In Auckland their duties included organising games such as rounders and baseball. A few playground deaths were thought unremarkable.

The great depression of the 1930s brought change. The itinerant physical instructors who taught in schools were dispensed with in 1933 as a cost-cutting measure. However, the depression allowed local authorities to use unemployed relief labour to build swimming pools and playgrounds, as well as develop parks and reserves.

In the 1940s physical welfare officers employed by the Department of Internal Affairs encouraged the provision of playgrounds in new suburbs, ran after-school and holiday recreation programmes and fostered links between school leavers and sports clubs. By 1950 they had set up nearly 400 sporting and recreational organisations for children and teenagers.

After the Second World War

In 1946 physical education became a compulsory core subject in secondary schools. The next year a School of Physical Education was established at the University of Otago. Headed by Philip Smithells, it ensured school instruction became more professional. By 1970, 70% of secondary schools had gymnasiums.

Well equipped

During the 1950s a lot of playground climbing equipment was installed at schools. Usually of galvanised piping, it was often made locally. Taranaki frames and Wanganui roundabouts, along with horizontal step bars, appeared in playgrounds. New swimming pools were also built.


In 1988 a newly established Crown agency, the Hillary Commission, picked up on an international trend for modifying sports to make them suitable for children. It intitiated KiwiSport, which promoted simplified forms of sports to enthuse primary-school-age children and give them a grounding in basic sports skills. Almost 30 simple forms were developed, ranging from Kiwi cricket to Kiwi judo.

Over time the government came to prioritise adult sport. KiwiSport was eventually cancelled and in 1999/2000 only 10% of $33 million disbursed by the commission went to junior sport.

In 2003 the Hillary Commission was replaced by a new Crown entity, Sport and Recreation New Zealand, known from 2012 as Sport New Zealand. In 2009 it revived KiwiSport, and promised $82 million to be directed over four years to primary schools, secondary schools and regional sports trusts for use by clubs and community groups.

In Otago, for example, projects funded by KiwiSport included the North Otago Rugby Union delivering Rippa Rugby sessions in schools; Tarras School delivering the Grasshoppers tennis programme; the Turbo Touch Rugby Association introducing turbo touch in schools; and the Central Rock Climbing Club establishing a youth club.

By 2012 over 500,000 young people nationally were enrolled in such programmes.

    • Quoted in Robert A. Stothart. The development of physical education in New Zealand. Auckland: Heinemann Educational Books, 1974, p. 13. Back

Support for adult sport, 1937–1972

Physical Welfare and Recreation Act 1937

Direct government support for adult sport began under the first Labour government. Its concern for the physical fitness of all, rather than a few champions, largely grew out of its social welfare programme.

The Physical Welfare and Recreation Act 1937 encouraged ‘physical training, exercise, sport, and recreation’ for adults. There were precedents for this approach in Europe, especially Germany, as well as elsewhere in the British Empire.

Living by his principles

The father of the Physical Welfare and Recreation Act 1937 was Bill Parry. Australian by birth and a socialist, he was a big man and a vegetarian, with a lifelong interest in physical activity. He was keen on cycling, fishing and shooting. Parry set up Parliament’s gymnasium and was frequently seen pummelling its punchball.

Physical welfare branch

The Department of Internal Affairs set up a physical welfare branch to coordinate adult fitness programmes around the country. The focus was less on organised sport than on physical recreation. In February 1939, for example, the branch organised a national fitness week that featured daily radio exercise broadcasts and free classes in many sports.

With the outbreak of the Second World War physical fitness was seen as a national duty. The branch became preoccupied with exercising air force cadets, police, Home Guard personnel and members of the Emergency Precautions Service.

From 1945 physical welfare officers turned their attention to civilians. They had considerable local discretion to encourage activities such as basketball and keep-fit classes. Recreation for industrial workers and business-house sports teams were also supported. By 1948 the branch had 60 staff. However, although many were skilled trainers, they did not necessarily have the community development expertise that their roles also required.

The first National government, which came into power in 1949, saw little place for the state in sport, and discontinued grants to clubs for equipment and facilities. By 1960 the branch had only two staff.

Other initiatives

After the Second World War the Labour government encouraged utilitarian memorials such as community centres, swimming pools and sports grounds. About 250 such facilities were eventually subsidised.

Long-standing learn-to-swim classes continued to thrive under the first National government, thanks to the creation of a National Council of Water Safety (now Water Safety New Zealand) in 1952. From 1956 the council received grants through the Department of Internal Affairs, as well as lotteries funding – a harbinger of the future.

Support for adult sport since 1973

Ministry of Recreation and Sport

The third Labour government (1972–75) had a particularly active involvement in sport. The Recreation and Sport Act 1973 created both a Council for and a Ministry of Recreation and Sport. Joe Walding became New Zealand’s first minister of sport.

One of the council’s first activities was the Come Alive campaign of 1975, which urged Kiwis to forsake their couches and TVs, and head outdoors. There were some limited government grants, primarily to local authorities to encourage youth recreation.

Hillary Commission

The Hillary Commission, named after mountaineer Edmund Hillary, was created through the Recreation and Sport Act 1987 to develop and encourage sport and recreation for all New Zealanders.

That same year Lotto was established, and under a 1991 cabinet agreement the commission was allocated 20% of Lotto profits to distribute. By 1999/2000 the commission was receiving $30.9 million from Lotto, compared with a government grant of $3.4 million, most of which was for high-performance sport.

There had been a narrowing of focus, including a reduction of funding for non-sporting recreation, and from 1995 some funds were specifically allocated to elite sport. However, there was continued support for broad participation.

In 1999/2000 the Commission disbursed $10 million to ‘sport development’, $9 million to ‘active living’ and $3.4 million to ‘junior sport’ – a total of 62% of its funds. Only $10.9 million (30%) was for high-performance sport. These sums were dwarfed, however, by the $453 million spent by local authorities and regional councils on community sport and recreation facilities.

Regional sports trusts

Regional sports trusts were set up from the mid-1980s to promote healthy lifestyles and run programmes geared to community needs. They were funded by local community and business interests, along with grants from the Hillary Commission. In 2013 Sport Wellington, for example, had 29 employees ‘committed to everyone, everyday experiencing the force of sport and physical recreation’.1

Feeling great

The 2008 Push Play campaign used advertisements on television, radio and outdoor advertising panels, as well as in magazines and the press. The idea was to inspire people to ‘feel greatness’ when they finished a run, hit the perfect golf shot or scored a goal.

Sport and Recreation New Zealand

Following a review which emphasised the importance of sport for public health, the Hillary Commission was replaced by Sport and Recreation New Zealand (SPARC) in 2003. SPARC allocated funding for both high-performance and grassroots sport. It picked up on and promoted the Push Play campaign initially developed by the Hillary Commission in 1999. This social marketing campaign encouraged people aged 25 to 50 to become more active and commit themselves to at least 30 minutes of activity daily. Women were a primary audience.

There was a big increase in government funding in the 2000s, largely targeted at high-performance sport. However lottery funds, which remained static, were still used primarily for community sport. By 2008/9 the total spending on sport was $95.4 million, and over half was from government. About 60% of the total went to public participation and sports clubs and about 40% to high performers.

Sport New Zealand

In 2011 the National government reshaped SPARC into a new organisation, Sport New Zealand, which formally came into existence in February 2012.

Although the motivation was to focus government support more strongly on high-performance sport, the new organisation continued to assist grassroots sport. However, the emphasis was less on physical activity itself and more on working through organised sporting institutions, such as national associations, the regional sports trusts, territorial authorities and sports organisations and clubs. It also gave extra support to seven sports: rugby union, netball, cricket, rugby league, hockey, football and gymsports. In 2012/13, $62.7 million (47%) of the organisation’s total budget of $133.4 million was spent on supporting and providing advice to community sport and sporting organisations.


Support for high-performance sport

Ad-hoc support

Until the late 20th century New Zealand governments supported elite sport on an ad-hoc basis, and particularly to gain political advantage. Premier Richard Seddon arranged funding for the triumphant All Blacks to return home via North America in 1906. Like many later politicians, he was on hand to welcome the successful team home. Olympic champion Jack Lovelock toured New Zealand as a guest of the government after his gold medal win at the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

Ministry of Recreation and Sport

In 1971 athletics coach Arthur Lydiard advocated the creation of a ministry of sport that would support the training of elite sportspeople. The Ministry of Recreation and Sport was set up in 1973. Although the 1974 Christchurch Commonwealth Games received significant public funding, the ministry was not what Lydiard envisaged, and sports bodies expressed frustration at the lack of funding it provided them with.

New Zealand Sports Foundation

The private sector stepped into the breach. A New Zealand Sports Foundation to support elite sport was set up by a group of businesspeople in 1978. The government initially promised a $100,000 subsidy. The foundation was soon receiving increasing assistance from the Lottery Grants Board.

In 1995, following the Department of Internal Affairs’ Winning Way report on elite sport in New Zealand, the National government gave the first direct funding ($4.6 million) for high-performance sport. It was focused on the 2000 Olympic Games. The Sports Foundation distributed this along with private and lottery funds.

From 2000 services to elite athletes were delivered through New Zealand Academy of Sport centres in Auckland, Wellington and Dunedin.

Sport and Recreation New Zealand (SPARC)

With the creation of SPARC in 2003 there was a growing sense that New Zealand was involved in a global sports race in which success would bring international prestige and inspire local pride. There was a dramatic increase in direct funding from government, primarily for elite sport.

In 2001/2, $6.2 million came from the Crown. With the enthusiastic support of two ministers of sport (Trevor Mallard for the Labour government and Murray McCully for the National government), Crown funding for Vote Sport and Recreation rose to $81.7 million by 2012/13. Almost three-quarters of this went to elite sport, although when funding from Lotto was added, the total spending was split about evenly between elite and community sport.

From 2006 a more targeted approach to funding was taken. This enabled larger grants for significant campaigns, especially the Olympics. Individual athletes were now eligible for ‘performance enhancement grants’ that enabled some to train full-time. Some funding came with conditions, such as reform of a sport’s high-level coaching or administration.

High Performance Sport New Zealand

The focus on elite sport was reinforced when High Performance Sport New Zealand (HPSNZ) was established within Sport New Zealand in 2011. High-performance funding was geared to the Olympic cycle. For the first time individuals were funded directly, with golfer Lydia Ko receiving $230,000 over two years.

The academies were absorbed into HPSNZ along with Sport New Zealand’s high-performance business unit.

In 2012/13 Sport New Zealand budgeted to spend $66.3 million, along with the long-standing Prime Minister’s Scholarship Programme ($4.25 million) for high-performing athletes and coaches.

In total high-performance funding was 53% of the agency’s spending.

The Olympic goal

In 2012 the most generously funded sports for the four-year build-up to the Rio Olympics of 2016 were rowing ($18.4 million), cycling ($15.6 million) and yachting ($11.2 million). Netball was the best-funded non-Olympic sport ($4.8 million). Minimum targets of 14 Olympic medals in 2016 (18 were won) and 16 in 2020 (20 were won) were set.

Major events

During these years New Zealand governments also put time and money into major sporting events. An Inter-agency Events Group was established in 2001 to provide a coordinated government response to major events like the America’s Cup.

Over the next decade the biggest investment was in the 2011 Rugby World Cup, and an office was established to coordinate government activity around it. The government put $26 million towards the event and associated activities, including a volunteer programme, a festival and some major cultural events. With local government it purchased and built The Cloud, an events centre and ‘fan zone’ on Queen’s Wharf in Auckland.


The government has contributed to new sporting facilities. For the Rugby World Cup it allocated $190 million to the redevelopment of Auckland’s Eden Park. Sport New Zealand also had a capital fund for improving sporting facilities. In 2012, for example, it funded a cycling centre of excellence in Cambridge and the National Ocean Water Sports Centre in Takapuna, Auckland.

Politics of sport

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.

Hononga, rauemi nō waho

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: David Green, 'Government and sport', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 26 May 2024)

He kōrero nā David Green, i tāngia i te 5 o Hepetema 2013