Kōrero: Sport and the nation

Whārangi 7. Sport and creative culture

Ngā whakaahua me ngā rauemi katoa o tēnei kōrero

A nation is often considered to represent its identity through its creative arts. It is perhaps surprising therefore how rarely sport and New Zealand arts have mixed (perhaps because sport and the creative arts have often been set up in opposition to each other, with one valued and the other often mocked); but there are some revealing examples.

Opening ceremonies

The most obvious were the opening ceremonies of international sporting events. The 1950 British Empire Games and 1974 Commonwealth Games featured the traditional march of athletes, although in 1974 a Māori concert group performed action songs and 2,500 school children formed the games symbol with red, white and blue capes.

The 1990 Commonwealth Games saw a more ambitious presentation created by production designer Logan Brewer. With massed dance, the migration of Polynesians in their waka was enacted, followed by the traditional Māori creation story of Ranginui and Papatūānuku. A Union Jack introduced the arrival of other peoples, represented by their music and dancing.

2011 Rugby World Cup

The 2011 Rugby World Cup opening ceremony drew on similar themes. Using digital technology projecting onto Eden Park itself, the ceremony featured a Māori karanga (call of welcome), a representation of the journeys of Māori and later peoples to Aotearoa, and a massive haka, which included references to the impact of volcanoes and earthquakes. The Rugby World Cup competition was also accompanied by the Real New Zealand Festival, which featured hundreds of events, including showcases of food and wine, a Māori opera, a concert by renowned opera singer Kiri Te Kanawa, and exhibitions about the history of rugby. The colour black was a popular theme.

A national pleasure?

In Report on experience, an autobiographical book about the Second World War, writer and novelist John Mulgan saw rugby as ‘the best of our pleasures: it was religion and desire and fulfilment all in one.’ ‘[T]hey looked on war as a game,’ he wrote, ‘and a game to New Zealanders is something that they play to win, against the other side and the referee, if necessary.’1


Despite the importance of sport to New Zealanders, it was not until local realism emerged under Frank Sargeson’s influence that fiction writers tackled the subject. Inevitably it was rugby which attracted them, the first notable effort being A. P. Gaskell’s short story ‘The big game’ (1947), which dealt with a Dunedin club game. The first novel predominantly about rugby was Maurice Gee’s The big season (1962), which used the experience of a club footballer to expose the conformist culture of small-town New Zealand. Gee’s next book, A special flower (1965), followed up by identifying rugby with the emotional repressions of the Pākehā male.

A significant rugby novel was The book of fame (2000), by Lloyd Jones, one of the few literary works sympathetic to rugby. It was a semi-fictional account of the 1905 All Blacks tour and followed their transformation from rough colonials into fêted celebrities.

James McNeish authored a sympathetic semi-fictional account of a sporting hero in Lovelock (1987). Children’s author Tessa Duder drew on personal experience to write the Alex books – a highly successful series about the journey of a young female swimmer towards the Olympics.

Foreskin’s lament

‘I was part of a whole generation that grew up on wintry mornings running from between Mum’s warm coat ends on to dewy green fields that seemed as vast as the Russian steppes … ambition wasn’t far away, we could feel it rising in steam-breath from the screaming side-line mouths …There were times of closeness, father and son, brother and weary brother, waking very early on cold mornings, huddling together under a blanket in front of a wireless waiting for it … and for a whole generation god was only twice as high as the posts.’2


The most influential play about sport was Greg McGee’s Foreskin’s lament. First performed in 1980 and 1981, when debate on the Springbok tour was at its height, the play was a savage and funny attack on rugby culture for its distortion of human relationships and domination of New Zealand culture.

Roger Hall’s C’mon black! told of a trip by a dairy farmer and ardent rugby fan to the 1995 world cup in South Africa. On the journey he is forced to confront the racial and moral complexities of the world outside small-town New Zealand.


In comparison with the fiction and plays, which have targeted rugby as a symbol of the nation in a largely critical way, sports poetry in New Zealand has focused mainly on cricket and been whimsically affectionate towards the game. A 2010 anthology, A tingling catch, uncovered 125 New Zealand cricket poems by 75 authors who ranged from Samuel Butler to Brian Turner. However, in 2013 the New Zealand Sports Hall of Fame published Touchlines: an anthology of rugby poetry, compiled by sports writer Ron Palenski.

Cricket on the screen

The only notable cricket film was Tangiwai (2011), a television drama. It told how, in the middle of a tense test match against South Africa on Boxing Day 1953, the fast bowler Bob Blair heard that his fiancée had tragically died in the Tangiwai rail disaster. Despite the trauma, Blair went out to bat with the injured Bert Sutcliffe and the pair hit sixes in scoring 33 for the last wicket. Their efforts were in vain. The test was lost.

Moving image

With the conspicuous exception of the hard-hitting documentary film Patu!, about the 1981 Springbok tour and the protests against it, most films and television programmes about rugby have been positive about the game’s place in New Zealand mythology. They include the National Film Unit’s Score (1980) which turned rugby into slow-motion ballet set to a Tchaikovsky score, a humorous blokes’ yarn, Carry me back (1982), and a serious documentary history series, The game of our lives (1996).

A very different pursuit was represented by the seven-part 1987 television series, The Marching girls, which followed the lives of members of a Hutt Valley marching team. It was created by Fiona Samuel, who was frustrated that Kiwi macho culture provided little space for women on the screen.

The 1950 Empire Games and the 1974 Commonwealth Games spawned ambitious films by the National Film Unit. The 1950 film began with images of beautiful New Zealand and the words ‘Blue skies and open air call us to sport.’ The most notable moving image to emerge from the 1990 games was an advertisement by director Lee Tamahori, which set the origin of the games in the trenches of the Western Front during the First World War.

Kupu tāpiri
  1. Quoted in Harry Ricketts, ed, The Awa book of New Zealand sports writing. Wellington: Awa Press, 2010, p. 10. Back
  2. Greg McGee, Foreskin’s lament. Wellington: Victoria University Press, 1981, p. 93. Back
Me pēnei te tohu i te whārangi:

Jock Phillips, 'Sport and the nation - Sport and creative culture', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/mi/sport-and-the-nation/page-7 (accessed 21 July 2024)

He kōrero nā Jock Phillips, i tāngia i te 5 Sep 2013