For over a century sport has engendered powerful nationalistic emotions for many New Zealanders. They have wept with happiness at sporting success, and mourned over failure. Sport has made its citizens proud to be New Zealanders on some occasions, and ashamed on others. In few countries do people identify their nation so strongly with one team and one sport as Kiwis do with the All Blacks rugby team.
Sport is an important expression of national feeling for new or emerging countries, as New Zealand was. Also, for small countries sport attracts notice on the international stage. New Zealanders, who tend to have a deep insecurity about their country’s size and isolation, savour recognition on international sporting fields and feed off admiring remarks of foreign commentators.
Auckland sports writer Don Cameron suggested, ‘[t]he great moments, Lovelock at Berlin, Halberg and Snell at Rome, and so on, come infrequently. Their rarity makes them all the more precious. We have time to treasure each achievement, to burnish every idol, before installing them in our pantheon of sport.’1
Defining the nation
New Zealanders have used sport to create ideas of ‘national identity’ and ‘character’. It provides symbols of race, gender and the nation’s place in the world. Stereotypes of themselves, and their opponents on the field, have been common.
Sport has not always been a force for national unity. It has also been a ground upon which major conflicts over national identity have been fought.
Sport’s meaning to the nation has been affected by the way events have been reported both overseas and within New Zealand. When coverage of performances overseas was delayed or dependent on foreign correspondents, the impact was less intense than when high moments of drama were beamed by satellite into the nation’s living rooms. Political leaders also play a role in intertwining sport and nationhood when they involve themselves in celebrating sporting successes.
The silent majority?
Just before the 2011 Rugby World Cup final Auckland University professor Toni Bruce found that just under half (49%) of New Zealanders surveyed felt that winning the cup was important to them personally. 43% reported making no effort to follow the cup and 10% actively avoided it.
The limits of sporting nationalism
Fans can support a national team without being patriotic. Similarly people who have strong national loyalties may have no interest in sport. Many with a proud loyalty to New Zealand bemoan the nation’s obsession with rugby.
The nation is not the only unit of sporting loyalty. The first teams set up in New Zealand were not national teams, but rather were based on localities. Local teams have remained important and have been joined by other groupings such as a school’s old boys or girls. When provincial teams emerged, in the 1870s, new loyalties were created. Even in the 2000s the passion of Waikato rugby supporters with their Mooloo cowbells (Mooloo the cow being the team’s mascot), or of Invercargill netball followers for the Southern Sting, was as powerful as any national sentiment.
There have been larger identities beyond the nation. When settlers established sports such as cricket in the 1840s, they saw themselves upholding the distinctive manly traditions of the British Empire.
At the end of the 19th century, as international sporting encounters emerged, New Zealanders expressed loyalty to colonial teams against the mother country. They normally supported Australian cricketers against England through to the First World War. During those years sport expressed an ‘Australasian identity’. New Zealanders’ first participation in the Olympic Games of 1908 and 1912 was as part of an Australasian team. New Zealand’s great tennis player Anthony Wilding helped win the Davis Cup for Australasia from 1907 to 1909.