The 1990s began with success in golf and sailing – sports that had wide popular participation, but little prior recognition of international achievement.
In 1992 New Zealand won the men’s amateur team golf championship, the Eisenhower Trophy. The team received the supreme Halberg Award that year. One of the winning quartet, Michael Campbell, later brought fame to his country in winning the 2005 US Open.
New Zealanders had experienced considerable success on the water in Olympics, but it was the (failed) attempt by New Zealand Challenge, using fibreglass-hulled boats, to win the America’s Cup in 1987, and then the 1989/90 battle for the Whitbread Round the World Yacht Race between two New Zealand teams – Peter Blake’s Steinlager 2 and Grant Dalton’s Fisher and Paykel – which drew widespread public attention to sailing.
Painting the country red
While New Zealand’s traditional sporting colour had been black, the 1995 America’s Cup campaign was notable for the adoption of Peter Blake’s favourite red socks. Many thousands of New Zealanders wore red socks in identification with the challenge.
This reached a peak in 1995 when Team New Zealand’s Black Magic won the America’s Cup 5–0 in San Diego. In commentator Pete Montgomery’s phrase: ‘The America’s Cup is now New Zealand’s cup’. Syndicate head Peter Blake and skipper Russell Coutts returned to a rapturous reception with 300,000 people lining the streets of Auckland. The success was interpreted as a new message about national identity. The black singlet man-on-the-land image had been replaced by an image of technological innovation on the water. After a successful defence in Auckland in 2000, the cup was lost in 2004.
Women’s participation in sport, as in other aspects of society, was generally undervalued. In the later 20th century there was increasing recognition of the achievement of New Zealand women in sports. Despite that, the women’s rugby team, the Black Ferns, which won the world cup on four occasions, did not receive their deserved recognition. However, from 1991 to 2011 the supreme sporting award (which in 1992 was renamed from Sportsman of the Year Award to the Supreme Halberg Award) was won by women on 10 occasions. Winners included:
- the Silver Ferns netball team (2003), winners of the world championship for the fourth time in 2003, and winners of Commonwealth games golds in 2006 and 2010
- Beatrice Faumuina (1997), world discus champion in 1997 and twice Commonwealth gold medallist
- Valerie Adams (2007, 2008 and 2009), who won the Olympic shot put gold in 2008 and 2012
- Sarah Ulmer (2004), who won New Zealand’s first cycling gold medal at the Athens Olympics
- Philippa Baker (1991 and 1994), who won the world lightweight single sculls title in 1991 and, with Brenda Lawson (1994), two world double sculls titles
- Caroline and Georgina Evers-Swindell (2001), who won gold in the double sculls at the 2004 and 2008 Olympics.
Stand up New Zealand!
At the 2012 London Olympics New Zealand won a total of 13 medals. Of these only one, Valerie Adams’ shot put gold, was not won with the competitors sitting down. The others came in rowing (six), sailing (two), cycling (two), kayaking and equestrian. Had New Zealand become a nation of sitting ducks?
Men’s Olympic rowing achievements
Men too contributed to the nation’s pride in rowing achievements. At the 2000 Sydney Olympics Rob Waddell, in the single sculls, won New Zealand’s only gold medal; at the 2012 London games New Zealand men won three golds and one bronze in rowing; and at the 2016 Rio games, the men took home two gold medals.
These years saw growing recognition of Pacific sportspeople. Jonah Lomu and Tana Umaga became major rugby personalities, David Tua fought for a world heavyweight boxing title in 2000, and Beatrice Faumuina (discus) and Valerie Adams (shot put) were among the nation’s starring athletes. In 1998 Samoan Sports Awards were established, following the Māori Sports Awards (which began in 1991), and were complemented by the New Zealand Pacific Island Sports Awards in 2011.
The All Whites final qualifying match against Bahrain in the Westpac Stadium in Wellington, on 14 November 2009, was one of the country’s most remarkable sporting occasions. There was a sell-out crowd, and in the last few pulsating minutes, with New Zealand leading 1–0, some in the crowd, following a habit developed by the ‘yellow fever’ supporters of the professional team Wellington Phoenix, removed their white T-shirts and waved them in the air.
In 2009 and 2010 there was much public interest in the New Zealand football team as it qualified for the world cup, and then went through the cup competition unbeaten. Virtually all the players were New Zealand-born, a striking contrast to the situation in 1981–82, the previous time a New Zealand team made it to the world cup finals, when about half were British in origin.
However, it was the traditional game, rugby, which brought a high point of national identification with sport, when New Zealand hosted and won the 2011 Rugby World Cup. The arrival of almost 100,000 rugby fans in the country, and the efforts made by creative people to present interesting perspectives on the country’s culture, showed how far sport was a vehicle for presenting national identity to the world. After the pain of previous losses, the cup victory was greeted with relief as much as joy. The subsequent autobiography by the All Black captain, Richie McCaw, was the fastest-selling book in New Zealand history.