Growing NZ's sporting connections with Asia

Growing up in rural Otago, Kereyn Smith dreamed of becoming an All Black but never imagined sports would take her around the world. In this article we chat with the departing New Zealand Olympic Committee chief executive and secretary general about her life in sports and get her take on New Zealand's sporting connections to Asia.
Kereyn talking to an audience from a dias

Kereyn: "Having close sporting ties with Asia is extremely impactful in terms of our New Zealand brand and exposing our values and culture to Asia" (Photo courtesy of NZOC)

Can you tell us how your love of sport came about and how you started working in the sports sector?

I grew up in a small rural community in South Otago where sport, school and farming were your life, that was it! My four brothers all played rugby and I started playing with them from a young age; my dream was to be an All Black.

As I got older, I became a provincial representative in a number of different sports, and then decided my calling was to be a P.E. teacher. I went to the school of physical education at Otago University then pursued a teaching job for a couple of years and decided after that to move into sports leadership.

Why are New Zealand’s sporting ties with Asia growing so rapidly?

The Asia Oceania connection is quite strong in sport now. There's far more linkages and there's a lot of unification around sporting competitions. We're seeing more of our athletes looking to Asia for competition and development, whereas traditionally they’ve been more European based.

It's seems to stem from proximity, similar interests and our ability to work together around training opportunities. There's always been really good alignment, partly because there’s generally a strong connection between our governments. The similar time zones and reliable flight links are also helpful.

An interesting example can be seen in the work of former NZOC CEO, Barry Maister, who was also an International Olympic Committee member. Barry reached out and formed cooperation agreements with the Chinese Olympic Committee, the Japanese Olympic Committee, and the South Korean Olympic Committee.

What grew out of that for winter sports was the commitment to establishing the Winter Games in New Zealand. The Winter Games is a Southern Hemisphere event based in New Zealand which has a really strong focus on Asia, and the athletes will come and spend the winter here and train here. That has helped to grow a really strong alliance in that space and it’s spread into other sports like golf and sailing.

kereyn talking to a young athlete who is holding a large photo of herself with a snowboard and is draped in the NZ flag

Kereyn describes New Zealand athletes as incredible ambassadors for this country (Photo courtesy of NZOC)

What benefits does having close sporting ties with Asia provide New Zealand?

Having close sporting ties with Asia is extremely impactful in terms of our New Zealand brand and exposing our values and culture to Asia, as well as who we are and what we stand for. Those benefits are also very aligned to the government's objectives of increasing New Zealand's profile and capability and enhancing our brand as a country focused on innovation and excellence.

Kereyn (far left) with Prime Minister Ardern and three NZ Olympians

Kereyn (far left) with Prime Minister Ardern and three NZ Olympians (Photo courtesy of NZOC)

When our athletes perform in Asia, it really does reinforce our brand of excellence and healthy active living. At the Tokyo Olympic Games we had huge support from locals and that’s because they know us and respect us because of our conduct on the field of play. All of that plays into New Zealand’s profile in Asia and has an impact on everything from trade to tourism.

What feedback have you had from New Zealand athletes and teams that have competed in Asia?

Spending time in Asia has been a really enriching experience for me and for our athletes and teams. Sport is a great way to learn about others and I’ve been fortunate to have had the opportunity and experience to learn a lot about some of the different cultures and the peoples of Asia.

I think sport is one of those really enduring ways that people can connect. It’s a great leveller and it allows you to overcome language barriers and create connections.

Do you have a standout memory from the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games?

First of all, the overwhelming thing you feel about Tokyo is gratitude that the Japanese people and the government continued to push on with the Olympics despite the challenges posed by Covid-19. It meant so much to the athletes and to everyone involved and we're hugely grateful to them.

Their level of organization and preparation was second to none, and it makes you feel very sad that the rest of the world wasn’t able to come and experience that. The venues, for example, were amazing, they were just incredible in their size and scale, so it was a real shame that spectators weren’t able to be a part of that.

Are you expecting New Zealand's sporting connections with Asia to continue to grow?

Yes, I think they will, and it would be really interesting to further explore the opportunities. The genesis of the Winter Games here in New Zealand was very much around ‘how do we collaborate to create new opportunities for our athletes and our sports?’

The New Zealand Olympic Committee would like to turn its mind to those opportunities and how we could work across our various codes and the Olympic and Commonwealth families and create deeper, more sustained relationships in and across Asia.

Photo courtesy of NZOC

Brisbane being announced as the host of the 2032 Olympics offers a huge opportunity as well. Asian sports and athletes will be looking to host pre-Games training camps in this part of the world and we’ll need to put more thought into how we can maximise those opportunities.