- Sport and the New Zealanders: A History by Greg Ryan and Geoff Watson
“Why does sport mean so much to so many New Zealanders?” (1). This is the question posed by Ryan and Watson at the start of Sport and the New Zealanders, one they set out to answer across the next 350 pages. Their answer will be a familiar one to historians of sport: more than any other activity, they argue, sport shaped the New Zealand self-image.
The authors begin in the introduction by outlining what they see as the multiple “myths” of New Zealand national identity: that it is a nation “created by hard-working pioneers” (3), that the rural population provides the backbone of the nation, and that it was and remains an egalitarian nation with an exemplary approach to race relations. They then proceed to painstakingly unpick those myths as they relate to sport; a recurring motif is the ambiguous status of women and Maoris within the sporting arena.
The book is structured chronologically, beginning with an overview of the pre-European Maori sporting world in the years before 1840 and ending in a summary of what the authors label the “neo-liberalisation” of sport in recent decades. To set out to cover the entire sporting landscape across this period is an enormous undertaking and obviously means that much of the discussion is pitched at a generalized level, but the footnotes demonstrate the exhaustive perusal of archival material that underpins the narrative and allows the authors to identify key themes stretching across the period: gender, ethnicity, class, commercial sponsorship, and government patronage.
Again, these themes are hardly exclusive to the New Zealand context. Indeed, the authors repeatedly touch on the relationship of New Zealand sport with its British counterpart, arguing that New Zealand sporting history was always heavily influenced by events in the imperial center, with sport initially introduced by European settlers who wanted to replicate familiar features of life back home. The second chapter is devoted to a description of “how the British sporting world . . . was transferred to diverse geographical and social settings in New Zealand” (29). [End Page 100]
The question the reader is repeatedly left pondering, therefore, is what, if anything, was (and is) distinctive about New Zealand sport? The tentative answers proffered by the authors in the conclusion are not entirely satisfactory: a greater degree of inclusion of Indigenous peoples, a lack of sectarianism and communal violence, and more opportunities for the working classes. One interesting argument is the idea that a specifically Kiwi form of amateurism developed during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, a “utilitarian amateurism” (as the authors term it) infused with more egalitarianism than the British version. In New Zealand, the argument goes, amateurism was presented as “providing the greatest good for the greatest number of people. . . . [It] became associated with a public service ethos personified by the volunteer” (100).
Any overview history like this one is bound to have gaps. Naturally, the book is strongest in the areas where the authors have pre-existing expertise: Ryan, for example, has previously published extensively on New Zealand rugby union and cricket, and, perhaps inevitably, there is an overwhelming focus on these two pastimes. The dismantling of the rural mythology of rugby, based on a full analysis of the backgrounds and occupations of All-Black players across the twentieth century, in which the authors show that the majority were white-collar employees from urban center, is particularly potent. Nonetheless, historians of smaller sports—squash, for example, which has a mere four references in the index—may feel a tad short-changed.
Another area where the book is less authoritative is in its analysis of women’s sport. I calculated that seventy-four pages were devoted to this topic, 23 percent of the overall book, which compares favorably with other similar overview works. Nonetheless, the conclusions are not always convincing. For example, the authors suggest that the founders of Craven School in Palmerston North, who in the 1890s employed...