8 Dec 2022

Are our Olympians actually employees?

From The Detail, 5:00 am on 8 December 2022

Aotearoa's top Olympic athletes are taking the national sporting body to court in a ground-breaking bid to win better workplace conditions.

Mahe Drysdale

Olympic champion rower Mahe Drysdale. Photo: Photosport

Some sports are more popular than others.

Think football, rugby, cricket. They're team sports, they're on TV all the time, and that means big audiences, big sponsors, and big bucks. 

Athletes in these sports have a lot of power - and so they should, you might say, they're the product after all.

To leverage this power, all three of these sports have players' associations - unions, just like any other workers' union, to negotiate with their employers on the players' behalf.

But not all sports have these structures - especially not sports with smaller followings and therefore less lucrative sponsorship or advertising deals. 

Many of our Olympians fall into this category. What enables them to train, to go to the Olympics, to win Aotearoa medals? Well, you do. The taxpayer.

These athletes are paid for their athleticism through grants, which are administered by High Performance Sport New Zealand (HPSNZ).

"Probably the biggest sleight-of-hand the government pulled off in creating this system is they essentially have professionalised sports that have no professional appeal," says Stuff national correspondent Dana Johannsen.

HPSNZ spends millions and millions of dollars every year supporting hundreds of athletes through these training grants, which amount to about $25,000 a year.

But $25,000 a year isn't really all that much. If you're training full-time - as any athlete with medal aspirations is - it works out well below minimum wage.

But a landmark case being taken to the Employment Relations Authority is looking to change that.

A union of 60 or so HPSNZ-funded cyclists and rowers have formed a union known as the Athletes' Co-operative. 

Spearheaded by Olympic legend Mahe Drysdale, the union wants to enter into collective bargaining with HPSNZ, arguing for better pay and working conditions, and increased focus on athletes' wellbeing.

"The infrastructure around these sports is hugely professional: high performance directors, analysts, performance psychologists, nutritionists, physios.

"This entire cottage industry was created around the sports, and half of them are getting a lot of money - six figure salaries - and then you've got athletes, the whole reason this exists, the whole reason these people's jobs exist, who are not well-funded."

The Athletes' Co-operative will have their hands full arguing their case: a ruling in their favour could pave the way for other athletes to bring similar claims, and potentially upend how high performance sport is funded in New Zealand.

It could also have wider implications for others who rely on grants from the public purse, such as writers or artists, and their relationship with bodies like Creative NZ. 

But Johannsen says she sympathises with the athletes' point of view.

"I'm not sure legally where they stand, but I certainly think a lot of the issues that come up in these reviews [of NZ sports bodies' culture and treatment of athletes] could be solved if they had truly independent representation...to be able to come up with an agreement that works for them, to be able to have a say over their training hours and whether they can go home for leave at the weekend.

"A lot of it could be solved if they were considered employees. At the same time, High Performance Sport clearly consider it to be unworkable, too expensive, and they argue if we did move to this model it would limit the number of athletes we could support, thereby impacting athlete welfare further."

The case is due before the Employment Relations Authority early next year.

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