31 Jan 2024

Athlete union scores over High Performance Sport NZ

From Checkpoint, 5:07 pm on 31 January 2024

The days of some elite athletes representing Aotearoa on the international stage for the glory - and a grant if they are lucky - could soon be over. 

The Employment Relations Authority (ERA) has found in favour of a group elite rowers and cyclists in what has been a long-running disagreement with High Performance Sport NZ (HPS).

The ERA found the government agency is legally obliged to engage in collective bargaining with The Athletes' Cooperative (TAC), which represents around 60 elite cyclists and rowers. 

HPS had rejected earlier attempts to hash out a collective agreement on the basis that it did not employ athletes.

Olympic great Mahe Drysdale, who spearheaded the case for TAC, said it was not a win yet - but "just the start of the process that we've been hoping to be involved in for the last 18 months".

"The significance is that we were vindicated in choosing collective bargaining and now High Performance Sport need to come to the table and and talk to us," Drysdale told Checkpoint on Wednesday.

"This is all we've been trying to do, at this stage… being compelled to do it, they now have to sit down and talk to us, which is very pleasing."

Drysdale, who won three Olympic medals in his rowing career, said there was a "power imbalance" between HPS and the athletes.

"The athletes have not been treated, in our view, with as much respect and we don't have any input into how the system operates. We're told how it works and what to do and we just go and train and hopefully perform.

"But we want to be involved in making the program and the system better.

"Obviously there's been a few unfortunate incidents in High Performance Sport and we believe that we can be part of that solution and in fixing those."

The formation of the union came in the wake of a damning review into the culture of New Zealand's elite sporting environments following the suspected suicide of Olympic cyclist Olivia Podmore in August 2021.

There are dozens of employees at HPS earning between $100,000 and $450,000 a year, and more than 100 between $100,000 and $150,000 - none are athletes. Drysdale said the most an athlete can earn in the "system" was $70,000.

"All of us are very lucky to be able to represent our country and perform on the world stage. But in saying that, why shouldn't we be treated like the 100 staff between Sport New Zealand and High Performance Sport… that are on $100,000 a year plus? Why are the athletes second-class citizens… when we're delivering the results? …

"As an athlete, we don't have an option to go and row for Australia or go somewhere else in the world because we're born in New Zealand and we want to represent New Zealand - and they know that we don't have any other options if we want to represent our country at the Olympics."

He said it would not necessarily require more funding for sport bodies in New Zealand to pay athletes better.

"We believe we can, even under the current regime and the current funding."